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Law Column: Sexual offences reporting restrictions extended

footansteylogonewEditors and court reporters are always vigilant when it comes to reporting sexual offences. Victims of a wide range of sexual offences are afforded anonymity for life – from the time an allegation is made.

As everyone knows, the Sexual Offences (Amendment Act) 1992 imposes a lifetime ban on reporting any matter likely to identify the victim of a sexual offence and encompasses a long list of sexual offences of the kind one might expect; rape, indecent assault, indecency towards children and so on. Even when the defendant is acquitted or the charges dropped, the anonymity remains.

Anonymity was extended to the victims of female genital mutilation by the Serious Crime Act 2015, which also provides a ban on reporting the victim of FGM from the time of the allegation and for life.

Now, the list of sexual offences in the 1992 Act has been extended to include all victims (and alleged victims) of any offence under section 2 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015.

Offences under the Modern Slavery Act encompass a wide range of human trafficking crimes, such as exploitation for the purposes of indecent photographs of children, illegal organ donation, trafficked sex workers, forced labour and domestic servitude.

The relevant sections of the Modern Slavery Act currently only apply to England and Wales and mean that the same reporting restrictions that operate for sexual offences are afforded to the victims of trafficking and exploitation, not just sexual exploitation, for example trafficking for prostitution, but also to other types of exploitation such as forced labour and domestic slavery.

When reporting a sexual offences case, journalists will always do their best to remove identifying statements from court reports. These tend to be features specific to the victim, such as age, location or certain dates. Identifying the defendant is in the public interest, particularly when the crime is serious and local. But identifying the defendant can potentially identify the victim. It is a difficult balance, made on a case by case basis.

Recent legislative changes leave us in the odd position that anonymity for the victims of sexual offences now encompasses the victims of non-sexual offences under the Modern Slavery Act, but not victims of revenge pornography under the Criminal Justice and Courts Act. I am not aware of editors choosing to name the victims of revenge porn, but given that the victim will almost always be the wife or girlfriend of the defendant, her identity will be obvious to many people (see HTPF August 28.)

In the case of the Modern Slavery Act, the anonymity granted to the victim will make it especially difficult to identify gang masters who have trafficked forced labour from Eastern Europe, or couples who bring girls from overseas on the pretext of a new life in Britain, but instead force them into domestic servitude.

Of course, the alleged victims can waive entitlement to anonymity by giving written consent (if they are 16 or older). Also, it is worth remembering that anonymity does not extend to other proceedings. So if a victim is involved in another non-sexual and non-human trafficking case, that can be reported. And finally, if the court is satisfied that the reporting restriction is a substantial and unreasonable restriction on the reporting of a trial in the public interest, a judge can lift the restriction. To do so will involve applying to a judge to lift the restriction, and all that drafting and arguing such an application entails