It is a well-established legal principle under the laws of England and Wales that victims of rape, and another sexual offences under the Sexual Offences Act (Amendment) 1992, are entitled to lifelong anonymity during investigations and any subsequent prosecution.
What is meant by ‘anonymity’?
An individual with the right to anonymity must not be named or identified in or by the press, either expressly or by implication. Nothing can be published which is likely to lead to any member of the public being able to identify the victim. If a media organisation names the victim, they will be in contempt of court and will most likely be prosecuted.
For instance, Sheffield United football player, Ched Evans, was acquitted of rape in 2017 (after having been originally convicted in 2012). Nine individuals were cautioned for publishing information that was likely to lead to the identification of the complainant – and each was ordered to pay compensation.
What is behind the principle of anonymity?
There are important reasons for a victim’s right to anonymity is that a victim has already suffered the physical and emotional abuse following the rape or sexual assault. Publication of the alleged assault, and the likely allegations concerning her sexual history, behaviour, clothing, etc, would cause further unnecessary emotional harm. The victim could, for instance, become the subject of further attack or harassment, and are likely to be too frightened to attend court to give evidence.
More importantly, if rape victims were not given anonymity when they make a complaint, they would be deterred from coming forward. This would mean the perpetrators would get away with their crimes – and sexual crime would become a major problem in society. As it is, the evidence is that sex offences go widely under-reported – although there has been a recent increase in police recorded sexual offences, showing an increased willingness of victims to come forward.
Are complainants always given anonymity?
In some cases, a victim may forgo their anonymity for specific reasons. However, without a court order – victims are entitled to life-long anonymity. Even if a defendant is acquitted of the charges, the victim is entitled to remain anonymous.
Sometimes, a complainant may make a false accusation of rape or sexual assault. In rare cases, the court will order that anonymity may be lifted because the allegation was false and the complainant subsequently convicted of perverting the court of justice.
What about defendants?
Defendants in rape and sexual assault cases are not entitled to anonymity. There have, however, been calls in recent years for anonymity for the defendants, and the recent coalition government had shown a commitment to introduce anonymity for the defendant (until a conviction). This never happened, and defendants still have no right to anonymity.
The reasoning behind calls for anonymity for defendants until a conviction is that the reputations of those falsely accused can be damaged irreparably, and their names may always be associated with an alleged rape or sexual assault.
However, critics of changing the law to give anonymity to defendants question whether men accused of rape should receive more legal protection than those accused of other violent crimes, such as murder or violent assaults.