Rape Suspects Should Have Identities Protected, Maura McGowan, Chair Of Bar Council Argues

People accused of sex crimes should have their identities protected until they are convicted, a senior lawyer has argued.

Under current legislation, people who complain they have been the victims of sexual offences automatically receive anonymity, but suspects do not.

Maura McGowan, chairwoman of the Bar Council, believes the law should be changed because allegations of a sexual nature "carry such a stigma".

"Until they they have been proven to have done something as awful as this - I think there is a strong argument in cases of this sort, because they carry such stigma with them, to maintain the defendant's anonymity, until he is convicted," she told BBC Radio 5.

"But once the defendant is convicted then of course everything should be open to scrutiny and to the public.

McGowan conceded there were arguments on both sides, for the naming of a suspect and for keeping them anonymous until proven guilty.

She said that in the past, when people accused of sex crimes had been granted anonymity, there was a sense that it gave them too much protection.

"There is obviously a public interest in open justice," she said. "People would say that they are entitled to know not simply who's convicted but who's been accused."

McGowan cited the case of Jimmy Savile as representing the benefit of suspects being named.

"In a case like that, people would say, if one complainant comes forward against a person it might give other people who don't know her, but who went through the same experience the courage to come forward as well," she said.

McGowan's stance was backed by Terry Harrison, who was falsely accused of rape five years ago and contemplated suicide because of the abuse he suffered after he was named in the media.

He told the BBC: "If the person has done the crime as heinous as that (rape), then they should be named and shamed, I agree, but not until they've actually been done for it.

"Innocent until proven guilty is a load of rubbish. I was guilty until I was proven innocent and even when I was proven innocent, I'm still getting judged.

"I ended up going to jail for something I didn't do. I was in the paedophile wing, the rapists' wing, the grass wing. I was there for three months before the DNA results finally came back negative.

"But the stigma is always there."

But rape campaigner Jill Saward told the BBC that naming suspects was essential, because anonymity offered too much protection.

Saward, who herself was raped, said: "When you have anonymity for a rapist or potential rapist you protect him, you make him what people believe to be a safe person to be with potentially.

"I don't think that we can say that it is the slightest bit fair to put people in danger knowing they might be a risk to people, let them make their own choice.

"Many of these people who are out there committing rape are serial rapists and sometimes people feel there isn't enough evidence to go forward on my case alone, but actually when lots of people come forward you begin to build up a very big picture.

"But when you have anonymity for that rapist - or potential rapist - you protect him."

Human rights barrister John Cooper added: "Anonymity for sex crime victims is unworkable. Why should somebody who is accused of a sex crime receive anonymity? Why don't we broaden that out to include people who are accused of beating children or murdering children?

"There's no distinguishing case for sex crimes to be singled out, it has to be anonymity for all or anonymity for none."

Anonymity was granted to rape defendants under the 1976 Sexual Offences Act, but was removed in 1988.

Holly Dustin, Director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition said the comments were "deeply disappointing" in light of recent abuse scandals such as Jimmy Savile and the tragic death of Frances Andrade.

"We wonder why Ms McGowan thinks this has changed and ask whether her suggestion would apply to all sexual offences? What about murder or other violent offences, which are also very stigmatising?

"In fact, such a suggestion is often based upon the strongly held, but inaccurate, belief that there are a large number of false allegations in rape cases, when this is simply not the case.

"Rapists are often repeat offenders with multiple victims so the police often publicise defendants' names in order to encourage witnesses to come forwards. Such a policy would be detrimental to our justice system."