In the hours since the acquittal of Michael Le Vell on all counts of child rape and abuse charges, I have, like many others, found myself wrestling with severely unpleasant emotional reactions.
Like all but a handful of observers, I was not in court for the trial. I do not know who the central witness was, or much that is meaningful about her other than that she is a girl, now aged 17. I do not know her relationship to Le Vell, I do not know anything about her personal history or circumstances. I do know that there was evidence provided to the court which could not be reported, lest it compromise the complainant’s anonymity. I can assume that some of the evidence and arguments presented by the defence will have been considered relevant and significant by the jury, other evidence and arguments will not, but I have no way of knowing what each of those might have been. Almost everyone else in the country is in the precise same position as I am.
With that in mind, I have been disgusted and appalled by the innumerable tweets and message-board comments I’ve seen calling for the witness in this trial to be named and shamed, imprisoned for making false allegations or simply abused and insulted by people calling her variations on “a lying little bitch.” In any case like this there is an enormous gulf between proving the defendant guilty beyond all reasonable doubt and confidently stating that the accuser is vindictively deceitful and dishonest. We simply don’t know.
I have also been disgusted and appalled by the innumerable tweets I’ve seen declaring the jury’s decision irrelevant, asserting that there would be no reason for the complainant to bear false witness and that Le Vell is possibly, probably or even (as I’ve seen written) certainly guilty, despite the jury’s verdict.
Inevitably, the case has once again raised the question of anonymity for the accused in rape and sexual abuse trials. The people who have today been asserting Le Vell’s probable guilt, even by the indirect use of the hashtag #ibelieveher, should be aware that they are providing the single strongest argument for the introduction of anonymity I have ever seen. Our judicial system is far, far from perfect and is in many ways in need of reform, but it is the only one we have got, and unless we prefer the justice of the pitchfork and the witchfynder, the single most important principle underpinning it has to be that every one of us is innocent until and unless proven guilty. Why is there a need for anonymity for rape defendants? Because even when someone is acquitted, large numbers of people continue to assert their guilt, and that was vividly proven on Twitter this week. People ask why we don’t make the same demand for murder, armed robbery or other crimes? The answer is primarily because when someone is acquitted on such charges, the rest of us are much, much more likely to accept and believe the verdict.
Now I have got that off my chest, I should explain that I am still not entirely convinced by the arguments for anonymity. The most convincing counter-argument is that when one victim of a serial offender comes forward, it will encourage other victims of the same attacker to do likewise, greatly improving the chances of securing justice and protection for all. This is an important factor which cannot be wished away. However if one begins to look more closely, some space for compromise begins to open up.
One example often used is serial rapist John Worboys, the taxi driver eventually convicted of 12 rapes, but believed to have been responsible for over a hundred more. However (I presume) few if any of his victims knew his name or had particularly good recognition of his face. What they recognised was his precise modus operandi . The key moment in catching him was when media and police eventually described not him, but his method, at which point many more victims approached saying “this is exactly what happened to me too.”
The other examples being quoted this week are Stuart Hall and other alleged or convicted offenders in the Operation Yewtree investigations. Again, these cases are less clear cut than they appear. What has happened in the aftermath of the Savile revelations is that many witnesses have come forward to report being victims of a wide number of offenders who were celebrities and stars in television and pop culture. When it emerged that children (and indeed adults) had been abused by stars of TV and radio, other victims came forward to identify different alleged offenders. What both Yewtree and Worboys suggest to me is that, at least in some cases, publicising the circumstances and (within reason) details of alleged sexual offences is a much more significant move than naming the offender.
So this is a question where the arguments on both sides, for and against, can be convincing. I’m not sure why the debate must be held on an absolute, all or nothing basis. British law (and I’d imagine similar applies in other countries) holds plenty of provision for reporting restrictions. Under contempt of court laws, judges can demand secrecy in cases of youth offending, family law, blackmail and more. Crucially, the judge also has the power to lift reporting restrictions in many of those cases, if the circumstances require or allow it.
Rape and sexual assault charges happen under many different circumstances. Sometimes police and prosecutors might judge it likely that there are other potential victims at large who could be persuaded to come forward if the alleged attacker is identified. In other cases (particularly familial and domestic abuse) the chances of there being other, as yet unidentified victims would be minuscule. I see no reason why there couldn’t be an assumption of anonymity which could be lifted at any time by the presiding judge, if investigators plead that it offers significant prospects of helping the case.
Whether or not this might have applied to or helped Michael Le Vell, I do not know and shall not speculate. However I do think that this debate, which at times seems intractable and polarised, might offer more scope for compromise and nuance than is normally allowed.