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Following the recent acquittal of Nigel Evans MP on the charges of sexual assault and rape, we have seen a determined effort to row back many of the progressions made over the reporting and judging of sexual offences. Soon after his acquittal, Evans told newspapers that he is to set up a campaign group for anonymity for people accused of sexual assault in order to “protect the reputations” of those charged and then cleared, which has been supported by many of his colleagues and friends in Parliament. However, to give into this campaign would be a huge mistake on the part of any government.
First of all, it’s important to point out that the coalition government did consider giving anonymity for people accused of rape in their first year in office. However, they could not find any factual basis for such a complicated change in the law. By giving anonymity to rape suspects I fear that we would be giving credence to the view that many of the people who are alleging rape are making it up. A Crown Prosecution Service report last year found this suggestion to be highly unlikely, for as little as three percent of accusers are found to be lying.
Government figures estimate that 97,000 people are raped every year (85,000 women and 12,000 men). They also estimate that only 10-15 percent of survivors actually report it to the police. The reasons for this are deeply complex. One report found that victims worry about the supposed shame of being sexually assaulted, while others fear prejudicial media reporting and have little faith in achieving a conviction because rape conviction rates are believed to be low. Only six point five percent of reported rapes ended in conviction last year.
Holly Dustin, Director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, asks an important question when she says: “We do not have this debate every time there is an acquittal in other serious offences such as murder, so why pick out rape when, as we have seen, there is no good evidential reason to do so?” With this in mind, the continued questioning appears to reveal a disturbingly unfounded scepticism of rape cases which only hinders the process of encouraging more victims to come forward to the police.
Nigel Evans and his friends have also picked the wrong target in MP Sarah Wollaston, with whom his accusers made initial contact about the episode. Evans even alleged that Wollaston “decided to have it in for him” with no reasoning as to why she might do so. By taking the allegations seriously, Wollaston was responsible and fair and the fact that she has faced “rank hostility” is appalling. Her recent defence of her actions was honest and brave in the face of growing hostility from people in her own party.
If the aim of Evans’ campaign is to protect the reputations of those who are charged then it is important to ask what is going to contribute to that more. Is it better if people charged with crimes go to court transparently and testify in open court, or to do everything in secret and behind closed doors? I know which trial I would sooner trust as a member of the public.
It’s not nice seeing an innocent person go through the draining ordeal of being accused of a crime they didn’t commit. Their whole life gets the full microscopic treatment from the media, their job can become untenable, and they have to spend inordinate amounts of money to clear their name (which they won’t get back thanks to a reduction in legal aid passed by the government). While these experiences may make them more understandable, the reactions of Evans and his friends to Sarah Wollaston and the Crown Prosecution Service are frankly beneath people holding office. They ignore facts and further embed a culture which has traditionally been hostile to people who have been raped.
Tragic as it is, the thought of an innocent person going through court proceedings pales in comparison to the 80 percent plus of people that do not report being raped to the police. It is their plight we should be thinking about and finding out how we can reform the Crown Prosecution Service to work better for them. The recent interventions appear self-serving and only detrimental to the much-needed process of improving justice for victims of sexual assault in Britain.