Commons Amendment

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:27 pm on 13th November 2003.

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Photo of Lord Ackner Lord Ackner Crossbench 5:27 pm, 13th November 2003

My Lords, I express my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, who provided at my request this particular drafting of my amendment in lieu. My original draft had to be done in a hurry, but it served its purpose. My amendment reads as follows:

"Disclosure of matter likely to identify defendant

In section 1 of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992, after subsection (3) insert— '(3A) Where a person ("the defendant") is accused of an offence to which this Act applies, no matter likely to lead members of the public to identify the defendant as the person by whom the offence is alleged to have been committed shall during the defendant's lifetime be included in any publication unless the defendant has been convicted of the offence.'" Amendments Nos. 1B and 1C—tabled respectively by the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, and by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford—although using different language, point to the contrast with my amendment. Instead of giving anonymity to the defendant right up until conviction or acquittal, they say that he should have anonymity only so long as he has not been charged.

I shall submit to your Lordships that that is quite inadequate because the period between charging and trial is the vital period. It is in that time that newspapers get to work and a defendant's life can be rendered utterly miserable.

I should point out that when I tabled my amendment, which provided that anonymity should last until the defendant was convicted or acquitted, I had the support of both the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, and the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford. I remind your Lordships of the substance of the debate on this matter on Report. I pointed out that the anonymity which I sought had been granted by Section 6 of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1976 and enjoyed for some 12 years until Section 158 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 withdrew it.

The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor referred to the Heilbron committee report which ante-dated the 1976 Act. It suggested that it was not right to select out sexual offences concerning anonymity for the defendant, although it recommended and achieved anonymity for the complainant. Her approach was not adopted by Parliament in the 1976 Act; and it is interesting to note that one of the strongest proponents of anonymity was the noble Lord, Lord Ashley.

On Report I said:

"The Government's cri de coeur has been that we must adjust any imbalance that exists between complainant and defendant in criminal trials".—[Official Report, 2/6/03; col. 1084.]

I hope noble Lords will have noted that I used the word "complainant". I am averse to using the word "victim" because that reverses the whole onus of proof and presupposes that the complainant has already shown the validity of her complaint, which of course she has not.

I was supported by a number of noble Baronesses. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, was the first speaker in my favour. She said:

"My Lords, from these Benches"—

I underline the word "Benches"—

"we support the amendment tabled by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner. We strongly believe in equality under the law".

She went on to say that she raised the subject at Second Reading because of her conviction that,

"we are to be seen to be as fair to the defendant as we are to the complainant".

She recalled the Minister's response:

"'Well, if rapists; why not murders or shoplifters?'".—[Official Report, 2/6/03; cols. 1085–86.]

The difference is quite important and has been overlooked by the Government. It is that that we live in a society that is obsessed with sex. As a result the publicity given to a person accused of a sexual offence occupies front page space whereas that dealing with murderers and shoplifters—unless of course little children are concerned with murders—receives very much back page response.

The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, who also supported me, said in terms:

"In recent cases involving Mr John Leslie and Mr and Mrs Neil Hamilton, they were subjected to appalling adverse publicity with no charges pressed. But there are people who will always say, "There is no smoke without fire". The intention behind the amendment is wholly laudable. I hope that the Government will say that they are prepared to consider introducing a provision to deal with the issue both pre-charge and during the course of a case, once it is decided to press a charge".—[Official Report, 2/6/03; col. 1087.]

The noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, who has enormous experience in trials involving sexual offences, said in terms that she thought that it was clear that some protection was needed for those who are not subsequently charged, as well as defendants awaiting trial. She said at col. 1088:

"That is a real problem. As noble Lords have said, whether or not there is ultimately a charge, reputations are wrongly ruined and a great deal of suffering is caused".

The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, whom I hope will remain faithful—in a forensic sense of the term—to me, said that she hoped that the Minister would take the amendment away and even consider anonymity beyond the point of charge. She preferred that amendment to that which provided anonymity only up to charge. She continued:

"Some men in such situations are driven not just to the point of, but to actual, suicide. I cannot think of anything more dreadful to someone who is completely innocent and vexatiously charged with such a serious offence than having to live through the kind of publicity that goes with it. We should not underestimate the effect of that".—[Official Report, 2/6/03; col. 1088.]

Not long ago, on the Isle of Wight, a suicide case received a great deal of publicity. The explanation was that the person concerned, although protesting his innocence, could not stand the stress and strain of the publicity.

I also pray in aid the support of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester, who considered the arguments for anonymity only up to charge and for anonymity right up until the court's decision. He said:

"On balance, the argument comes down in favour of granting the same rights of anonymity in principle to those who are accused".—[Official Report, 2/6/03; col. 1089.]

Later he said:

"My Lords, the noble and learned Lord referred to the guidance issued last November"— that is the guidance to the police not to provide any information until charge. He continued:

"Soon after that a well-known entertainer, Matthew Kelly, was dragged through the papers in an unfortunate way. He was dragged from his pantomime performance and it was in the press within five minutes. This was on the back of the guidance being issued. I happen to know this because my wife is involved in charitable affairs in my diocese. I know the impact on him and his family. Unless the guidance the Association of Chief Police Officers has issued is given some teeth, it is not worth the paper it is written on".—[Official Report, 2/6/03; col. 1094.]

Those are excerpts from our debate.

If your Lordships are persuaded, as you should be, that the media, with the sexual obsession that nowadays enters all aspects of society, treats publicity for sexual offences so differently from the publicity accorded to offences even more serious, there is a whole justification for singling out the defendant and allowing him to have the same anonymity as that provided, which we all agree should be provided, to the complainant. I beg to move.

Moved, as an amendment to the Motion that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 1, at end insert Amendment No. 1A in lieu of the words so left out of the Bill.—(Lord Ackner.)