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Tuesday, April 15, 2014 

Anonymity in the criminal justice system must not be undermined.

Regardless of the natural empathy you must have for Nigel Evans, it's difficult not to feel a little discomfort at how his acquittal was responded to by some of his fellow MPs. Evans had it seemed been hung out to dry, no one seemingly willing to speak up for him prior to the trial, not even the usual "friends of" who so often brief the papers and are correspondingly often the person themselves. Come last Thursday and suddenly it was as though none of his contemporaries had doubted his innocence for a second. Much as one suspects the reaction is somewhat to do with general dislike for John Bercow and the role he played in the arrest of his deputy, as well as continuing disgruntlement over Plebgate, you can't help but detect something else just below the surface.

Why else would there continue to be calls for those accused of sexual assault and rape to have the same right to anonymity as those making the allegations when no one believes the same protection should be given to those charged with murder or manslaughter? The character of the accused is often traduced in the same way, and the stigma that follows can if anything be worse regardless of acquittal: Colin Stagg is just one such example. While there is no anonymity for murder victims for obvious reasons so there isn't a direct parallel, anonymity doesn't make giving evidence any easier for those often then aggressively interrogated by the defence: the suicide of Frances Andrade makes that clear.  In the past I've been suspicious of calls to rebalance the criminal justice system in favour of the victim, and I don't think Keir Starmer's suggestion to consider a move away from the adversarial system is workable, but his helming of a review for Labour is certainly a step beyond Blair era tabloid pleasing efforts.

It certainly doesn't help the message to listen to those who come forward saying they were abused when MPs make it clear to one of their own that she should be examining her conscience.  Sarah Wollaston did absolutely nothing wrong in first making an appointment for two of the men accusing Evans to see John Bercow, and if anyone doubts that despite the failings of the wider prosecution case there were questions for Evans to answer, they should see the interview Newsnight conducted with one of them.

None of this is to deny that the CPS and the police do have questions to answer over its handling of the wider evidence.  Most of the men approached believed their brushes with Evans had not been abusive, and maintained that from the outset.  In this instance the attempt to create a picture of a wider pattern of abuse than just one or two alleged incidents completely undermined rather than strengthened the case.  Much the same has been apparent in the other recent trials of high profile figures, where defences have picked apart faded memories and juries have taken the word of the celebrity rather than their sometimes confused and uncertain accusers.  As Wollaston argues in her piece for the Telegraph though, there is a danger both in politicians criticising the CPS and in the wider emphasis on the questions surrounding anonymity.  In the case of Stuart Hall it was other victims coming forward after he was first arrested that almost certainly led to him pleading guilty.  As I also noted on Thursday, while Evans was understandably exciting much opinion at Westminster, the even more farcical evidence presented by the prosecution in the Nicky Jacobs trial went almost entirely ignored.

Coming after the Maria Miller storm, the last thing MPs ought to be seen as doing is special pleading.  Some never seem to get truly exercised about anything until it hits them personally, such as during the Damian Green case, or Plebgate, only then it occurring that if it can happen to them it can happen to anyone.  The fact is Evans' case is not unique, and the real irony is it's a change to legal aid by his government that looks set to mean the CPS won't be paying his costs.  Much as you don't want it to be the case, at times politicians give the impression some victims are more deserving than others.

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