THE BLOG

We Need to Talk About Anonymity for People Accused of Rape

15/01/2016 09:50 GMT | Updated 14/01/2017 10:12 GMT

On Tuesday, "15 months of absolute hell" came to an end for Durham University student Louis Richardson.

He had been at the centre of a court case, accused of rape and sexual assault, but, to the relief of him and his family, was cleared of both charges.

Despite being found innocent, Richardson's "hell" may not yet be over. What happens when, having gone for a job interview, Richardson's prospective employers Google his name (a whopping 77% of employers research candidates), and come across a host of articles about the Durham student being accused of rape?

In this job climate, it's not far-fetched to think that they might just opt for another applicant, who doesn't happen to have been embroiled in a court case.

We need a logical, informed discussion around whether those accused of rape should be granted anonymity.

Before I'm shut down by those who will tell me anonymity for the accused will only be detrimental to rape victims coming forward - I acknowledge this issue, and I think it is a hugely important one. After all, rape conviction rates in the UK are some of the lowest in Europe; just 13% of reported rapes end in a conviction.

I am in no way advocating rape accusers should have their anonymity withdrawn - as one columnist has.

This would be incredibly harmful for rape victims who are already concerned about the stigma about coming forward, and who face the monumental task of bringing their attacker to justice. Additionally, just because charges are dropped, does not mean the accused is innocent - there may just have not been enough evidence for a conviction.

Nonetheless, we need to have this discussion.

Sandra Paul, a criminal defense lawyer at Kingsley Napley, says: "Pretty much every employer and business acquaintance searching this chap's name in future for example, before an interview, before he attends a meeting, sees a customer or whatever will know what happened these past 18 months. The fact that he was falsely accused of rape will always be known and precede whatever else he has to say or contribute. How can that be right or fair?"

It's also important to note these false accusations are few and far between.

And, as Telegraph journalist Radhika Sanghani points out: "It's important to remember that the number of false rape cases are minimal. Over five years, 109 women in the UK were prosecuted for false rape claims. Considering an estimate of 425,000 women would have been raped over that time period in England and Wales alone, it is a tiny figure."

But they do happen.

Back in 2014, Ben Sullivan, the former president of Oxford University's debating society, was accused of rape, and later cleared.

The 21-year-old described the time as a "year-long nightmare".

He also aired his concerns about his reputation being "trashed"online.

"This has done terrible damage done to my reputation. That has been incredibly difficult. In the age we live in anyone can find out anything about you so quickly. My age group are very afraid of who has dirt on them."

Last year, a YouGov survey found 74% of the public agreed with the statement "People accused of rape should have their identities kept secret and not reported by the media unless they are found guilty."

Anonymity for rape suspects was actually introduced into British law in 1976, but repealed by the Conservatives in 1988.

Yes, this discussion needs to take into account the impact this would have on rape victims, but it's high time we realised our justice system is for everyone - those accused of crimes included.

After all, "innocent until proven guilty," right?