Defendant Anonymity: A Barrier to Judicial Transparency?

Last week, the press got lucky. In the early afternoon of Tuesday, Coronation Street actor Michael Le Vell was found not guilty on all 12 criminal charges he was accused of – meaning print journalists had all evening to construct their stories with an angle that the public would be baying for.

This angle was that of a man wrongly accused, his reputation tarnished and his private life exposed to the world for no other reason than the Crown Prosecution Service’s poor judgment. Of course, everyone knew he was innocent all along, or so you would be led to believe now that his innocence has been confirmed. Had the verdict been returned a little closer to the deadline for the first morning newspaper editions, who’s to say how confident these articles would have been.

It means an old question rears its head again: should defendants in sexual abuse cases, or indeed those charged with any criminal offence, be granted anonymity until they are found to be guilty?

Some will cry out that the answer is obvious. ‘Innocent until proven guilty’ and ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ are phrases the British justice system is quick to promote, and it does seem that the press is quick to forget that. While they tenuously observe libel regulations, ensuring to sprinkle their articles with stock lines such as “…claimed the prosecution” and “…it was alleged”, these rarely make it into the headlines. The Daily Mirror led with “…HE GROOMED HER” at one point during the trial, and it is certain this will be an edition the guiltless Mr Le Vell will be happy to forget. Had his identity remained anonymous, the trial would have proceeded without public interest and Michael Le Vell, tried under his real name Michael Turner, would have returned to his life and his job much the same as when he had entered into the ordeal.

Some people, however, tend to cry out a lot. They want prisoners to be re-enfranchised and insist that life sentences breach their human rights. While these are thorough debates themselves, they suggest that Europe is pussy-footing towards a criminal justice system wherein the accused is given more consideration than the accuser. Is that really a good prospect?

Quite frankly, no.

The girl who (wrongly) pointed the finger at Michael Le Vell has never been named, but it is ludicrous to think the same treatment should be applied to him. After being acquitted, Mr Le Vell celebrated, telling the press as he left the court that it was “time for a pint”. Regardless of what the arguments might suggest, how much has he really suffered at the hands of the CPS? His alcoholism and infidelity have come to light, but he will have a hard time blaming the justice system for his own weaknesses. And even these have been largely overlooked, with the story of how he was so badly treated allowing him to rise as a sacrificial lamb that escaped the altar and is now an idol to be admired. Coronation Street bosses say they are eagerly looking forward to his return to the show and the tabloids write today of how the girl’s mother was “obsessed with Satan”.

Michael Le Vell, Rolf Harris, Max Clifford: all names that will spark public interest. Countless times I have heard people say that they “can’t believe that [celebrity name] would do such a thing”. And if the police, the CPS, the jury don’t believe it either then the impact is minimal. The public outrage if a guilty verdict is returned and the press had been gagged, however, would be tremendous. In 2011, a huge row erupted over celebrity injunctions. People could not believe that they had been prevented from hearing about the sordid, yet perfectly legal, extramarital affairs of presenters and sports personalities, so imagine if they were convicted of sexual harassment, rape or child molestation without the eyes of the nation watching. It would not stand, and neither should it.

The UK’s courts persevere to be fair and just, but this should not come at the cost of transparency. A trial is one of the prides of a democratic society, allowing all the evidence to be presented to the court and the public, with an independent jury present to decide whether this evidence is sufficient for a conviction. It is one of the Western fundamentals setting us apart from failing nations that still rely on secret police and hasty condemnation. If we begin to conduct this behind closed doors, the sluice gates are opened to a system that Britain may soon become ashamed of.

Michael Le Vell was innocent, and we sat and watched as this was proven. Would any of us really rather be told on Tuesday, previously unaware that a trial of any interest had been ongoing at all, that Defendant M has been found not guilty? I know I certainly wouldn’t.