On Friday 9 June 2017, the Court of Appeal handed down its judgment in relation to two niche issues that will be of significant interest to those reporting the courts. The decision clarifies a narrow exemption to the anonymity afforded to the victims of sexual offences and supports the principles of open justice and freedom of the press.
The appeal itself followed restrictions on the reporting of a perjury trial which centered on false complaints of rape made by Jemma Beale against an unidentified male (MC). MC was initially convicted and sentenced to 7 years imprisonment, overturned on appeal when doubts were raised as to the truth of Ms Beale’s allegations.
On the opening of Miss Beale’s perjury and contempt of court trial, the Crown Court were required to consider her right to anonymity under sexual offences legislation and whether the delayed reporting of the proceedings was in the interests of justice. The judge made an order under Section 4(2) of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 preventing identification, an order which was promptly appealed by News Group Newspapers.
Automatic anonymity for the victims of sexual offences
The first issue for consideration by the Court of Appeal was the Crown Court’s decision that Miss Beale was statutorily entitled to anonymity throughout her perjury trial.
Section 1 of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992 provides for automatic lifelong anonymity for the victims of sexual offences. In its judgment, the Court of Appeal highlighted that the Crown Court had failed to identify that this automatic right to anonymity is qualified by three main exceptions, namely:
1. where the complainant has provided their written consent;
2. “In the event of criminal proceedings other than the actual trial or appeal in relation to the sexual offence”; and
3. to encourage defence witnesses to come forwards.In this case, Miss Beale fell into the second category as these were “other proceedings” given that she was now on trial for perjury as opposed to the claimant in a rape case. Miss Beale’s right to anonymity was removed. The court referred to guidance issued by the Judicial College on Reporting Restrictions in the Criminal Courts, which states that “the media is free to report the victim’s identify in the event of criminal proceedings other than the actual trial or appeal in relation to the sexual offence”.
In implementing reporting restrictions in favour of Miss Beale, the Crown Court had been concerned as to the impact on actual rape victims if they subsequently learnt that a complainant had since been charged with perjury. However, the Court of Appeal stated that in doing so, the Crown Court had failed to take into account that the legislation was not designed to protect the administration of justice generally.
The court accepted that identifying Ms Beale would not create a substantial risk of prejudice to the administration of justice in the current proceedings; and no relevant proceedings were identified that were “pending or imminent”. Accordingly, the Crown Court had no power to make the Section 4(2) order.
Furthermore, the order delivered by the Crown Court had also failed to clearly set a date upon which the restrictions would cease. The Court of Appeal held that such an order should not be made indefinitely but that, in addition, it should also be necessary.
The Court of Appeal amended the order so that restrictions on reporting were instead postponed until the verdicts were delivered in the perjury trial itself.
This important decision provides clarity and permits identification in other proceedings such as these, thereby expanding the reporting and publication possibilities.
Ms Beale was subsequently sentenced to ten years, having been found guilty of four counts of perjury and four counts of perverting the course of justice.