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Anonymity for suspects?

29 January 2019

Anonymous person silhouette
Article by: Zaki Hashmi


Following the “drone” incident at Gatwick airport over Christmas 2018, when the arrest of two suspects led to widespread media coverage, there have been renewed calls for an anonymity law preventing the identification of suspects who have been arrested but not charged with a criminal offence.

Paul Gait and Elaine Kirk were arrested on suspicion of operating a drone and causing major air travel disruption. After 36 hours in police custody they were released without charge and no longer treated as suspects. But this did not prevent considerable negative media publicity, most notoriously the Mail on Sunday’s headline “Are these the morons that ruined Christmas?”

Mr Gait and Ms Kirk joined Christopher Jefferies (who was arrested in 2010 on suspicion of having murdered his tenant), Paul Gambaccini (arrested in 2013 on suspicion of rape) and Sir Cliff Richard (the subject of a sexual abuse investigation in 2016) in becoming the innocent victims of intrusive media attention.

Mr Gambaccini, Sir Cliff and others subsequently launched a campaign in favour of pre-charge anonymity for those arrested on suspicion of rape and other serious sexual offences. But the recent Gatwick arrests have led to calls for legislation protecting all criminal suspects.

The Conservative MP and criminal barrister Anna Soubry brought an unsuccessful private members bill in 2010. More recently Liberal Democrat peer and former senior police officer Lord Paddick introduced a private members bill in 2017 which is the subject of interest of a number of conservative MPs, including the chair of the Justice Select Committee Bob Neill, who wish to see the bill brought to a second reading later this year.

If it became law Lord Paddick’s bill would impose reporting restrictions preventing the identification of an arrested person until they had been charged with an offence. Such anonymity could be lifted by a Crown Court judge if identification of the suspect might lead to other complainants coming forward or to information that assisted either the suspect or the police.

An application to lift a suspect’s anonymity could be made by the police, the prosecution, the suspect, or anyone (including a media organisation) with a sufficient interest. The unlawful breaching of a suspect’s anonymity would be a criminal offence punishable by up to six months imprisonment.

It remains to be seen, at a time when the government has other matters on its mind, whether the impetus generated by the Gatwick drone incident will lead to significant legislative change for the benefit of the wrongly accused.

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