Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Coalition finds reverse gear on rape anonymity


"We will extend anonymity in rape cases to defendants" - Coalition Agreement, 'Justice', May 2010.


Cath Elliott on Liberal Conspiracy asks Is Cameron backtracking on rape trial anonymity?

This is a question to which the answer is almost certainly yes.

David Cameron's response at Prime Minister's Questions to Harriet Harman's challenge to the government's intentions signalled an important retreat in several ways, in response to pressure on the issue from women's groups, criminal justice campaigners, the Labour party and others, for reasons summed up very well by Vera Baird in her Progress article.

Firstly, he was strikingly lukewarm about the government's policy, in noting that ""The coalition agreement mentions this issue of anonymity. We will of course be bringing forward proposals that the House can then examine and debate". This was not one of the great many issues the Coalition had agreed to review: it had been resolved to act.

Secondly, Cameron words signal that the policy is now changing from that set out in the Coalition Agreement, in relying on the Home Affairs Select Committee of 2003 report which "came to the conclusion that there was a case for saying that between arrest and charge there was a case for anonymity" and talking about the case for that "limited extension".

The Coalition may now suggest nothing more was ever intended. Perhaps we should all let them do so, if that enables an elegant retreat. That would, however, suggest that Oliver Letwin and Danny Alexander use a different dictionary from everybody else: the "defendant" is the accused in a criminal trial. Suspects who have not been charged are not defendants. What had previously been briefed by officials was that the government's proposal was likely to be anonymity until conviction.

Thirdly, perhaps most importantly, Cameron made it much more difficult for the government to attempt any return to the anonymity until conviction proposal, in that he personally conceded one of the main substantive arguments of those campaigning against the measure.

He told Harman:


"I understand what she says that it is important the publicity around a case can help bring other people who have been raped forward. I understand her case but I do think this does represent a good way forward."


He stressed several times that "The fact that rape convictions in this country are so low is a scandal and we need to improve on that", and again that the proposals were motivated by the desire to see more of those guilty of rape being convicted.


We all want the same thing, which is to increase the number of successful rape prosecutions and to send more rapists to jail. That's what this is about.'


Making that the test would now make it very difficult for the government to proceed against evidence that the identification of defendants has led to crucial evidence from previous victims.

If the issue is now pre-charge anonymity, what seems unclear as to how far this would change routine practice, in the case of rape or indeed of other criminal cases, where suspects are not usually identified prior to being charged. Clearly there are some cases (as with the shootings in Cumbria today) where a criminal suspect is identified by the authorities prior to charge, for reasons of public protection or to apprehend a suspect. But this does not happen routinely prior to suspects being charged.

And what the government may now have more difficulty in explaining is why there is a need to treat rape differently from other crimes in this respect. (There was a clearer rationale for the anonymity of defendants' proposal, in that rape victims do have anonymity at trial which other victims do not, but Cameron appeared to substantively concede the case for that assymetry today).

The debate over whatever is proposed will continue, but it is very difficult to see how the original proposal can now credibly return.

***

Finally, in the spirit of the "New Politics". So let us also say that the government changing its mind if it is persuaded it got it wrong is A Good Thing.

The government seems to have been taken by surprise by the reaction to its proposals. It may well now rather sensibly lack the appetite for digging in its heels over a proposal which so many women's groups think both important and wrong-headed.

(The Coalition Agreement was made under quite a lot of time pressure: this specific proposal was a LibDem policy which did not appear in their election manifesto. There were no women among the principals in the negotiating teams. Of course, concern about rape convictions is not an issue which should only concern women, but that may provide a partial explanation why nobody in the negotiations realised that the proposal might be more controversial or complicated than it may have appeared).

So here's a possible deal: the government might want to avoid obfuscation on the issue and make a clean breast of admitting that it has changed its mind. If it will even go as far as to acknowledge that campaigning on the issue informed its rethink, then surely those who were pressing them to change direction should not mock a "u-turn" (in the style of the "Old Politics") but rather praise the flexibility of the "New Politics" when that means the government changing course when informed advocacy makes a convincing case that they've made the wrong call.

4 comments:

cim said...

"There was a clearer rationale for the anonymity of defendants' proposal, in that rape victims do have anonymity at trial which other victims do not"

I don't think that is a particularly clear rationale, though. Why should the defendant's rights at a trial be the same as a witness' rights? It sounds superficially reasonable, but in most other situations we accept that the two are different without any concern. (I go into more detail on this at my own blog)

Sunder Katwala said...

cim

Thanks for the link. Yes, I agree, and thanks for the link. The point was just that, once the government now seems to accept that too, it becomes harder to see why *rape-specific* provisions would be proposed with regard to pre-trial anonymity.

Koen said...

Nick Clegg seems to have confirmed that the coalition will not be pursuing the anonymity.

Sunder Katwala said...

Koen

Thanks. Yes, its good to see the backtrack continuing, and Caroline Flint made an effective attack yesterday. As Clegg has effectively acknowledged the "idea" wasn't a particularly expert or informed proposal, the government should not now simply go away from the issue but make a point of engaging fully with women's and civic groups on the issue of how to secure more convictions of the guilty, support for victims, etc.