Durham Union Society hold controversial debate on the anonymity of the accused

By Charlie Taylor-Kroll

The Durham Union Society held a controversial debate on the subject of the anonymity of the accused in cases of rape and sexual assault.

The Friday Night Debate, entitled: “This house believes that the accused should remain anonymous” saw the arguments put for and against whether those who are accused of rape and sexual assault should be granted anonymity during their trials.

Current President of the DUS, Emily Beighton, originally proposed this debate in her manifesto before being elected. At the time, DUS officers criticised her proposal, due to her friendship with former DUS secretary Louis Richardson, who was charged with sexual assault in May 2014.

Mr. Richardson was acquitted of all charges on the 12th January 2016.

During a General Committee meeting last Wednesday, many DUS officers were reportedly concerned and upset that a debate on this topic was taking place.

Some members of the committee reportedly pointed out that holding a debate on the theme of criminal anonymity was inappropriate due to Beighton’s friendship with Richardson.

There was also concern among the members of the meeting that there would be a risk that names of victims might emerge inadvertently when questions were opened up to the floor.

Despite the fact that individuals are granted lifelong anonymity under the law and that identifying them is a criminal offence, many DUS officers suggested this debate posed too great a risk of breach of confidentiality, which as a consequence would cause irreversible trauma and distress.

Due to the sensitive nature of the topic, the Director of Counseling at Durham University was also present at the debate, and made herself known in case anyone in the audience was distressed by what was said during the debate.

Beighton also reminded attendees that it is a criminal offence to mention any names of any victims of sexual assault.

Mark Fenhalls QC, Chairman of the Bar Association of England and Wales, and Verity Adams, non-practicing barrister and researcher in international and criminal law, proposed the motion that those accused of rape should remain anonymous.

David Banks, media law consultant and journalist for the Independent, The Guardian, and New Statesman; was the only opposing speaker due to the fourth and final speaker having to withdraw due to illness.

Both the proposers and the opposition were respectful in their presentation of the topic, with Mark Fenhalls QC prefacing his speech by explaining that the overall purpose was to get the audience “thinking about these issues.”

The speakers proposing the motion accepted that any trauma experienced by the accused does not in any way equate to the level of that of the victim, but suggested that the welfare of everybody in these cases should be considered as being accused does not equate to being guilty.

The proposition also argued that proper police investigation is the most appropriate means to encourage people to come forward who are involved in a certain case, as opposed to using media coverage for this purpose.

Separately, Castle’s student publication, Floreat Castellum, published a comment article supporting the motion that the accused should remain anonymous.

Its author, Sarah Westlake, wrote: “Why on earth are we naming the charged before the conviction? The victim is quite rightly protected, but why isn’t the accused? If proven innocent, they are in fact a victim of a careless and life destroying story.

“Let’s face it, Louis Richardson’s identity as an innocent and hardworking young man has been corrupted and made dirty, and he is just one of the many who has been falsely accused and forever tainted.”

Opposing the motion, David Banks argued that anonymity would hinder the ability to gather witnesses, as the case would not be made public enough for others who might have important evidence to come forward.

This point was also mentioned by a DUS member when questions were open to the floor.

Banks also argued that providing the accused with the same anonymity rights as the victims indicated that the upset experienced by the victims and the accused was of an equivalent status.

The outcome of the debate was in support of the motion.

Second-year Business student, Harry Smart, who attended the debate, told Palatinate: “The debate as a whole was well handled considering the controversy of the issue and under the circumstances that have surrounded the University over the last year.

“In regards to the outcome it was it seemed like a majority of the Society members vote in favour of the motion.”

 

Photograph: Peter Bonnett 

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