Legal Update 25.11.05

The combination of celebrity and sex is a dream come true for the
tabloids, so when a premiership footballer was recently accused of rape
in a London hotel it was no surprise that this made front-page news.
One week later, a former Big Brother contestant also appeared on the
front pages after declaring that she had been raped in a hotel room in
Leeds.

The first case relates to Manchester United and Portuguese
international footballer Christiano Ronaldo and the second to Big
Brother 6 contestant Lesley Sanderson. They highlight what some see as
an anomaly in the law, which allows the complainant of a rape to claim
anonymity, but does not give the same rights to the defendant. This
“anomaly” is further compounded by the involvement of the “celebrity”
defendant, and the ensuing libel problems likely to arise.

The
rules on identification require the police not to name the defendant in
a rape case until charged. In Ronaldo’s case there have been no charges
and he has been bailed pending further investigation, but the papers
have printed headlines naming him as the accused.

Meanwhile, the two French women (as The Sun described them)n who claim they were raped have remained anonymous.

The
law has been designed to protect the victim of rape, but does it
adequately protect a defendant who is the subject of a plot to destroy
his reputation?

You only need to think back to the Leicester City footballers’

incident in La Manga to see how easily a defendant’s reputation can be damaged.

Ronaldo’s
agent has vehemently denied the accusations, but the media interest
goes on, and indeed will continue to cause problems not just for
Ronaldo, but also for the newspapers publishing the articles about him.
Newspaper editors need to be on guard because rape-accused defendants
who are proven innocent have in the past had great difficulty in
repairing their reputation, and experience shows that they will be
looking to sue for libel. Libel will be much easier to establish where
there is no defence of privilege available for the newspaper, as is the
case here.

The burden of proof rests with the newspapers, so if
heavyweight allegations are made then these need to be substantiated.
All that the claimant needs to establish is identification, publication
and that the words were defamatory.

Anonymity for complainants in
rape cases was first introduced by the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act
1976 and was subsequently extended to complainants in other sex cases.
At present, the restriction on publication applies from the moment that
an allegation has been made, and it continues for the rest of the
complainant’s lifetime unless, like Big Brother 6 contestant Lesley
Sanderson, the complainant decides to waive protection and give written
consent to the publication of any otherwise prohibited identifying
matter.

The big difference we see with the Lesley Sanderson rape
claim is that the defendant, a manual worker (rather than being a
multimillionaire football star), has remained anonymous simply by
virtue of not being a celebrity. Ronaldo, on the other hand, will
potentially face an unfair “trial my media”.

These two cases are
the most recent in a spate of high-profile sex allegation cases, and
will no doubt nudge the Government towards giving further thought to
the possibility of reform. An amendment to the Sexual Offences Bill has
been proposed that would make it illegal for newspapers to publish the
name of anyone being investigated for a sexual offence until they have
been charged, and if not charged then anonymity would be granted for
their lifetime.

James Baker is a trainee solicitor at Charles Russell LLP

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