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Commons Amendment

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:45 pm on 13th November 2003.

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Photo of Lord Corbett of Castle Vale Lord Corbett of Castle Vale Labour 5:45 pm, 13th November 2003

My Lords, perhaps I may begin by apologising for not taking part during the Report stage on this topic. I apologise specifically to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner. When his amendment on Report was put to the vote, regrettably, I went into the wrong Lobby. I am being frank about that and I regret it very much. I say that because it was a Private Member's Bill that I sponsored in 1976. It was taken through this House by the late Lord Willis, which gave matching anonymity to the defendant in a rape trial unless convicted. That became the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1976 with the sponsorship and support of my noble friends Lady Hayman and Lord Ashley of Stoke, and others, when we were all in another place.

As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, said, anonymity for the complainant woman had been argued for in a report by Justice Heilbron. She said that it should apply from the time that a man was accused of the offence. That anonymity was meant to protect women from the salacious intrusion of the press—in both words and pictures—which, in my view, it was rightly felt could deter some women from reporting rape to the police. We can all recall cases of that.

Initially, in Committee, I resisted the move to give matching anonymity to the male defendant. But I was persuaded on the grounds of equality of treatment, which won all-party support in that Committee. The argument for anonymity for the defendant, unless convicted, is—in my view, it still remains—that an accusation of rape, even where there is an acquittal, is so uniquely damaging to a man's reputation among his family, friends, those with whom he works, and in his community, that this matching protection is exceptionally warranted.

Because of the interest taken by the press and media in rape trials where, say, a vicar's daughter is involved or a footballer or show business personality is accused, there might be a disproportionate degree of pre-trial publicity as compared with other serious criminal offences. I do not regard it as any part of the criminal justice system to help newspaper editors sell extra copies on the basis of prurient reporting and coverage.

There are those who say that this is an attempt to do justice in the dark. I deny that. Names are used in court, but what can be reported is restricted in the way that matters in other kinds of trials are restricted. Blackmail and espionage trials come to mind.

When the other place considered the anonymity clause added by your Lordships to the Bill, it was argued that its restoration would restrict the police in trying to trace possible witnesses or to hear from other women who might have been raped by the defendant, but had not reported it. I have to say to noble Lords that during the 12 years that anonymity for the defendant was provided under the 1976 Act, I am not aware of any complaint made either by the police or prosecution on those grounds in rape trials.

In any event, as the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, reminded us, the 1976 Act gave the judge powers to remove anonymity if she or he felt it to be in the public interest to do so, or it could be removed at the request of the defendant. So I do not believe that the argument is at all convincing.

The present law recognises that in rape trials it is very much the complainant woman who feels on trial. A verdict turns on whether it is the woman complainant or the defendant man who is most believed. But in law, of course, it is the defendant man who is on trial and I remain of the view that justice is neither damaged nor denied if he has matching anonymity unless convicted.

The other amendments which have been tabled acknowledge the justification for matching anonymity for the defendant, but seek to provide it only up to the point of charge. I see no good reason for stopping at that stage. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, argues in his amendment, anonymity should extend throughout the trial and be removed only upon conviction. I hope that your Lordships will agree.

Lastly, I wish to echo what was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes. If there are people around who believe that there will be a voluntary agreement by the Press Complaints Commission that will be enforceable in all circumstances, then I have to say to them that they have not learnt from past experience.