Anonymity upon arrest

The naming of suspects by police at the point of arrest and charge has become a hot topic.  The Home Secretary has written to Chief Executive Officer of the College of Policing, Alex Marshall, expressing her concern about the different policies operated by different forces in England and Wales.  She wants it made clear to forces that unless there are very good public interest reasons for naming suspects who have been arrested, it shouldn’t happen.  The press have repeated concerns that this amounts to some kind of ‘secret justice’.

I really have little concern about suspects under arrest who have not been charged remaining anonymous.  Far too often we see examples of the press effectively having a trial which convicts the person while that person is still in police station being questioned in connection with an alleged offence.  By the time this person is then released from the police station their reputation has been destroyed, even if they are entirely innocent of any involvement in any crime.

Persons who have been arrested and not named do not fall into some big black hole; indeed millions of people are arrested in England and Wales every single year and very few are named at the point of arrest (in fact very few are named publically at any point, even after conviction).  There are important rights, protected by law, which mean that it is impossible for someone to be secretly arrested.  Those arrested have the right to have someone informed of their arrest and are entitled to legal representation; although both of these can be delayed, they are still rights which have to be exercised eventually if the arrested person wishes to exercise those rights.

It has been argued that naming a suspect at the time of arrest allows further victims to come forward, but so would naming them at the time of charge.  There is nothing stopping the police from arresting the person again in connection with different allegations that come to light after they have been charged.

In effect what a policy of anonymity for suspects under arrest would prevent is the press from publishing endless stories ‘monstering’ a person over something they may or may not have done.  We should perhaps be more than a little suspicious of the motivation of the press on this story; evidently ‘monsetring’ stories are the type of stores that make newspapers (particularly tabloid newspapers) sell.  Such a motivation cannot be ruled out of the press opposition to a move towards anonymity of arrested persons.

The clearest example of this was that of Christopher Jeffries, the man who was wrongly arrested on suspicion of murdering Joanna Yeates.  What followed, while he was still in police custody being questioned, was a press frenzy which painted him as a deviant, gave the impression that he was a nasty individual and by implication that he was clearly Joanna Yeates’ killer.  However, he was later released from police bail (having never been charged) and won substantial damages from eight newspapers for libel.  The Attorney General also prosecuted two newspapers for contempt of court, both of whom were found to be in contempt.  Another mab, Vincent Taback, eventually convicted of her murder and is currently serving life imprisonment.

Charging a person with a crime is a formal process; it is when criminal proceedings begin against a person.  From the point that a person is charged it is clear that the Contempt of Court Act rules kick in.  These rules provide sufficient protection in respect of the person’s right to a fair trial and news stories which are sufficiently prejudicial could even cause the collapse of a trial (although that is rare and it would have to be something of great significance).  The only cases where publishing the names of people who have been charged with an offence which causes me to pause and really think are those accused of sexual offences.  With sexual offences, more than any other offence, there appears to be a guilty until proven innocent mindset amongst general pubic; there is no smoke without fire, so to speak.  However, there are strong arguments in favour of anonymity and disclosure in those cases and it is a finely balanced argument.  Although I have argued in favour of anonymity before, I now believe that the arguments in favour of disclosure are slightly weightier.  However, in sexual offences cases I do feel that the authorities responsible for bringing cases in respect of alleged contempts of court have to be more pro-active.  Perhaps also providing for a possible (short) custodial sentence for editors who are guilty for allowing a seriously prejudicial story to be published (i.e. that type of story that causes or is seriously likely to cause the collapse of a whole trial) might make editors slightly more responsible around high profile cases.

It would be entirely right for the police to move to a system of neither confirming nor denying to the press whether they have a specific person in custody under arrest.  This gives the police the space to conduct that initial investigative phase and it will minimise the reputational damage done to those who are innocent and unfortunately arrested.  Without confirmation from the police of the name of the person in custody it is unlikely that the press will publish any name that they do have.  However, if such a move did not stop the press frenzy that we currently see around arrested persons, I would certainly not be adverse to Parliament passing legislation which specifically prohibits the confirming of names of arrested persons outside of a set of clearly defined circumstances where it really is in the public interest (and that’s not what the public are interested in) to release the name at such an early stage.

We do have a system of public justice and it is important for both the public and those accused of crimes that trials happen in the public eye.  This is not so that the public can gawp and stare and slander individuals accused of crimes, but so that the public can see that justice is being done and to protect those accused of crimes from oppressive state practices.

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