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Why we must reject anonymity for suspects in sexual offence cases

The demand for sexual offence suspects to be granted anonymity appears in the press and within public discourse with depressing regularity.

To support such a move is to prioritise the interests of a small group of men over those of one of the most vulnerable groups of all – rape complainers.

With statistics in Scotland for 2017/18 showing that there were 2,255 rapes and attempted rapes reported to the police, but only 107 convictions, the last thing that is needed is something that will make this worse – and proposing anonymity for those accused of rape is a retrograde step which promises to do exactly that.

Reporting rape, and going through the criminal justice process, can be an extremely difficult experience. Taking the decision to speak out about what has happened, and to seek justice, is far from automatic. According to the latest Scottish Crime & Justice Survey less than ¼ of people who had experienced it report their most recent rape as an adult. Fear of being blamed, judged, disbelieved and of the court process itself are among many barriers survivors face when they’re considering reporting.

There is no reason why those accused of rape should be singled out for anonymity – proposing that they should seems to suggest that rape victims are more likely to be making false allegations than victims of other crimes, which research tells us is not the case. The push to grant anonymity is also an attack on the credibility of rape complainers – a contemporary spin on the damaging suggestion that women ‘cry rape’ and are not to be trusted.

Many of the difficulties in securing convictions for rape lie in the hidden nature of the crime, the fact that it is one word against another, and that concrete evidence is often in short supply, if not entirely absent. Too often it is the words and behaviour of survivors that continue to be scrutinised rather than those of their attackers, and in the course of rape trials it sometimes seems as if any spurious irrelevance can be thrown into the effort to discredit them.

Rapists rely on the terror, shame and trauma that so often keeps their victims silent, and in some cases assault one person after another many times before there is any prospect of discovery. There have also been many cases where identification and conviction of a perpetrator would not have been possible if the public had not been made aware of his identity. Knowing who their attacker was and that were not alone in having suffered at his hands is sometimes the single factor that allows survivors to come forward and can significantly enhance their chances of receiving justice when they do.

Where the defence of ‘consent’ is used by the accused, as it often is, it can be difficult for prosecutors to mount an effective case against him, but where a pattern of behaviour can be established, with the experiences of several victims giving the lie to the claims of a defendant, conviction is possible.

Damaging assumptions around the notion of men being falsely accused of rape are repeated wildly and inaccurately in the press and in private conversation every day, but the reality is that this happens no more often in the context of rape than it does for any other crime.

We last published a blog on the subject of anonymity for defendants in rape cases 9 years ago, though this was far from the last time the issue has been raised. John Worboys (whose conviction was only possible when his identity became known, and several women assaulted by him were able to identify him and verify the truth with their own experiences) was then, as now, one of the starkest examples of why anonymity in sexual offence cases will harm survivors and impede convictions. Nine years ago John Worboys was suspected of having assaulted more than 50 women. Police now believe that he may have carried out more than 100 rapes and sexual assaults on women in London between 2002 and 2008.

There is a horrifying vagueness about these estimates – and the enormous human toll they undoubtedly conceal. And that - if we are serious about supporting survivors, and helping them obtain justice for the devastation sexual violence can cause - is where our energies, outrage and concern really belong.

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