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Philosophy 101: Should Defendants Be Given Anonymity in Cases of Sexual Assault?

In the previous 101 series, we looked at the differences between Ethical Egoism and Altruism In this latest 101 series, the focus is looking at how the legal system treats its defendants and victims. The main question is examining whether or not defendants of sexual assault should be given the right to anonymity. At first glance, it may seem quite a straightforward issue but there are several factors to consider like the friends and family of all concerned. Who should get the greatest protection, the victims of crime or the accused?

All accusations of sexual assault or any serious crimes should be taken seriously and investigated thoroughly until there is enough evidence to say there is or is not a case for conviction. This is a fairly uncontroversial statement that most, if not all, would agree with. This is what gives one faith in the legal framework to ensure that justice is done and there is equality across the board in terms of both defendants and victims of crimes receiving a fair trial. Innocent until proven guilty is the legal principle which makes the presumption that anyone accused of a crime is to be given a fair trial and considered innocent until proven otherwise. The burden of proof lies with the prosecution. However, at present, In the UK, if someone is accused of rape they are not entitled to anonymity. This has called into question the sensitivity in how these types of cases are dealt with. It has been a major issue for teachers in the UK. In 2009 The Guardian reported, "A poll by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) reveals that a quarter of school staff have been falsely accused by a pupil of wrongdoing – such as slapping them or inappropriate sexual conduct – while one in six has faced malicious allegations from a pupil's family. Half of those questioned said there had been at least one false allegation in their current school."

Dilemma. (n.d.). [Photograph]. Dilemma.

Kevin Courtney, the joint secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), revealed that while some complaints were correct, most are found to be incorrect after an investigation. In one case, where a girl had accused a teacher of sexual assault, Courtney reported that the mother of the girl contacted the NEU and Courtney himself, to say that the girl had indeed made it all up. Courtney also reported that in many cases teachers are suspended even before the accusations have been proven true or false. One could be forgiven for thinking that this article is favoring the accused over the victims or potential victims. This is not the case. As previously outlined, all cases should be taken extremely seriously and rigorously investigated, and to not do so would be a great injustice to those that do tell the truth. However, the question of whether the accused should be named and shamed before getting a fair trial should be given greater consideration. Words are powerful. Once something is said it cannot be unsaid or taken back. The view that there is no smoke with fire (there is always some reason for a rumour) sticks to these people that get wrongly accused and can have devastating effects such as, mental issues, family separations, and careers ruined.

Others argue that it is a good thing that the accused are not granted anonymity because it gives more victims the strength to come forward with accusations without the fear of being disbelieved or craving attention. To take an extreme case, the late broadcaster Jimmy Saville had several hundreds of people come forward with complaints of rape and sexual assault made against him. The evidence was overwhelming. Savile has gone down in history as one of the UK's most prolific sex offenders and this case unfortunately never went to trial due to Savile's death. Unfortunately, because Savile ultimately escaped justice. In other high-profile cases, names have come to public attention before trial which has also proven to be true. In 2014, painter and musician Rolf Harris was convicted of sexually assaulting girls as young as seven. His name was in all the big papers and radio stations before his case reached trial. In other high-profile cases, where the defendants' name has been outed before the trial has caused considerable damage to those concerned. Popstar, Sir Cliff Richard received two million pounds in damages from the BBC who broadcasted aerial shots of the singer's home all on the back of a one man's accusation that the star sexually abused him in 1985. In an interview Sir Cliff did at the time, he spoke of his ordeal when finding out about the raid on his home. "It's hard to explain to people what it feels like. I only went back to that apartment once, to collect my clothes. It was worse than being burgled."

A judge later concluded Sir Cliff had a right to privacy while a suspect in the investigation, trumping the broadcaster's right to freedom of expression to publish his name and cover the raid.

Anonymity word cloud concept. Collage made of words about anonymity. Vector illustration. (n.d.). [ILLUSTRATION]. Anonymity Word Cloud Concept. Collage Made of Words about Anonymity. Vector Illustration.

There is not a straightforward solution to this question. It is a difficult and complex question to answer. Essentially, it is a question of whose concerns do society value more? Do the concerns of potential victims supersede those of the accused? Or by giving anonymity to the accused, does this mean that society is valuing the concerns of the accused greater than those of the victims? Victims are less likely to come forward if there is not the weight in numbers of others accusing, especially in high profile cases. Whatever one thinks about this, it has to be said that there are no easy answers. If forced to make a decision about this, I think I would opt for anonymity to be granted to the accused. Although, my mind could easily be changed. Perhaps there are exceptions. If one takes the Savile case, for example, maybe if there are more than x number of people coming forward, (say ten people or more) to make the complaints which is what happened in this instance, then there may be a case for outing the accused. This could again be problematic; if only nine people come forward this means we would have to honor the anonymity of the accused.


Asthana, A. (2009, October 25). Teachers fight back against false claims of pupil assault. Thegaurdian.Com.

McFadded, B. (2018, October 7). Most accusations of sex abuse made against teachers are made up by pupils says head of Britain’s biggest teaching union. Dailymail.Co.Uk.

Sir Cliff Richard: BBC pays £2m in final settlement after privacy case. (2019, September 4). Bbc.Co.Uk.

1 Comment

Daniel Soto
Daniel Soto
Dec 11, 2023

The thought-provoking article on "Philosophy 101: Should Defendants Be Given Anonymity in Cases of Sexual Assault" delves into the ethical considerations surrounding anonymity for defendants in sexual assault cases. The author adeptly navigates the complexities of this issue, raising questions about fairness and potential consequences. A sexual abuse lawyer perspective would be invaluable in exploring the legal implications of such anonymity, ensuring a delicate balance between the accused's rights and the need for transparency in the pursuit of justice. This article invites a nuanced conversation that underscores the importance of legal expertise in shaping policies that navigate the sensitive terrain of sexual assault trials.

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Peter Terrence

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