This is a topic that has been raised in the media again this week with comment made at the Conservative party conference. The Home secretary, Suella Braverman, reportedly commented on this topic to a young conservatives meeting at the conference. She was reported as saying she will examine the possibility of giving anonymity to suspected criminals.
Anonymity may protect the rights and safety of the individual but will always be a restriction on the freedom of the press. Balancing these interests has a challenge for Parliament and policing over the last decade.
What are the current rules about anonymity in police investigations?
Once an arrest is made, a case is “active” under the current contempt of court laws and there are limits on what can be published about the suspect.
The College of Policing Authorised Professional Practice states that “Suspects should not be identified to the media (by disclosing names or other identifying information) prior to the point of charge, except where justified by clear circumstances, such as a threat to life, the prevention or detection of crime, or a matter of public interest and confidence.”
The subject of anonymity during an investigation came to prominence due to the intense media coverage during investigation into well-known individuals such as Cliff Richard and former MP Harvey Proctor. Neither individual was prosecuted but media attention was intense.
This issue has been brought to parliament by Anna Soubry in 2010 and again in 2019 but has not reached the statue book. In 2019 Lord Paddick said:
“There has recently been a series of cases where historic sexual offence allegations have received extensive coverage in the media but have not led to any charges, ruining reputations. Although these have involved high-profile individuals, other cases have ruined the reputations of ordinary people locally when criminal allegations have been made public, even when the Crown Prosecution Service has taken no further action.”
A bill “ to create an offence of disclosing the identity of a person who is the subject of an investigation in respect of the alleged commission of an offence; and for connected purposes.” was presented to Parliament on Monday 20 June 2022 by Sir Christopher Chope , the Conservative MP for Christchurch. The next stage for this Bill, second reading, is scheduled to take place on Friday 28 October 2022. Second reading is the first opportunity for MPs to debate the main principles of the bill. It usually takes place no sooner than two weeks after the first reading.
This topic was not mentioned in the Home Secretary’s open letter to Leaders of the police in England and Wales of 23rd September, nor was it topic reported, as a priority, in her speech to the full conference. Therefore, it remains to be seen if the current government will see this as a priority area for legislative change.