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Last Updated: Thursday, 31 July, 2003, 15:08 GMT 16:08 UK
Preventing trial by media

By Jon Silverman
Legal affairs analyst

John Leslie
John Leslie faced a media scrum when he emerged from court
Of all the issues raised by the indecent assault charges against John Leslie, the most obvious is whether sex charge defendants should be granted a measure of anonymity to prevent "trial by media".

There are plenty of influential voices in favour of such a move.

The Commons Home Affairs Committee has recommended that suspects should not be named up to the point of charge, though the MPs could not agree on whether such protection should be extended to the trial itself.

The House of Lords was persuaded that the law should be changed when it voted in favour of an amendment to the Sexual Offences Bill currently going through parliament.

But the Home Office has already promised to overturn the amendment in the Commons. And there are sound reasons for doing so.

Naming a suspect is regarded as a key to unlocking complaints

The chief one is the disappointingly low conviction rate for rape and the declared need to give rape complainants more confidence to come forward to the police.

Naming a suspect is regarded as a key to unlocking complaints and helping to build a case.

In 2000, for example, a man was sentenced to life for a series of rapes when publicity about his arrest persuaded a number of women to come forward.

Seven testified at the trial and a further four approached the police after conviction.

Writer Elizabeth Udall, who has interviewed rape victims, argues strongly that the law should not be changed.

" We name people charged with paedophilia or murder. Why should rape be treated differently?

"And remember, only a tiny percentage of rape allegations turn out to be false. "

Tabloid restraint

A more fruitful way of ensuring that people's reputations are not destroyed beyond repair by an unproved rape or sexual offence allegation is to encourage a measure of self-restraint by the media at the pre-trial stage.

A Home Office spokesman has talked of discussions with both the police and the newspaper industry to see whether existing guidelines on disclosure can be strengthened.

But inevitably, when a high profile figure is facing potential sex charges, restraint is not high on the tabloid agenda.

Scotland Yard

The Leslie case has cast another shadow over Scotland Yard's Special Inquiry Team which handled the investigation.

The team was also responsible for gathering evidence against the royal butler, Paul Burrell, whose Old Bailey trial collapsed so spectacularly.

A leading QC, Lord Carlile, believes the unit should be disbanded.

"It is a mistake to have elite units examining elite people because the personality of the suspect is rarely relevant to the case."

But the CPS has praised the team's handling of the Leslie investigation and there is no suggestion at this stage that it made any significant mistakes.



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