Echo changed to guilty plea over naming of alleged sexual assault victim because defendant was first charged with rape

The Northern Echo pleaded guilty to a charge of identifying an alleged rape victim in a court report victim because the defendant was originally charged with the sexual assault.

The charge against the defendant was dropped, with a charge of assault remaining, before trial.

Initially, the Newsquest title pleaded not guilty to the offence of breaching the life-time anonymity of an alleged victim of sexual assault, granted under section 1 of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992.

At this point, it was relying on the defence in section 1 (4) of the Act, which says: "Nothing in this section prohibits the publication or inclusion in a relevant programme of matter consisting only of a report of criminal proceedings other than proceedings at, or intended to lead to, or on an appeal arising out of, a trial at which the accused is charged with the offence."

But research by barrister Guy Vassall-Adams into the origins of the Act led the newspaper's publisher, Newsquest North East, to change its plea to guilty.

This was because it became clear that both the 1992 Act, and the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1976, which originally introduced anonymity for rape victims, were intended to maintain the protection even if a rape charge was dropped or scaled down to a lesser charge at some stage during the criminal proceedings.

This emerged from the 1975 Report of the Advisory Group on the Law of Rape – the Heilbron Report, named after the Advisory Group's chairwoman, the late Mrs Justice Heilbron.

Newsquest took the view that the report made it clear – even if the wording of the statute did not – that the purpose of the proviso in section 1 (4) of the 1992 Act, which reflected a similar provision in the 1976 Act, was that a complainant should retain anonymity if a charge of rape was brought but was subsequently reduced to a lesser charge.

Newsquest told the Crown Prosecution Service: "While the report does not address the situation of where a rape charge is dropped and non-sexual offences continue to be prosecuted, we consider that it is now reasonably clear that the Heilbron Report intended that anonymity should continue throughout the proceedings even if a rape charge is dropped.

"As Parliament's intention enacting what was to become section 1 (4) of the 1992 Act was to give effect to the Heilbron Report's recommendations, this has led us to review our approach to this case."

The Heilbron Report said, at paragraph 171: "Where… a charge of rape is reduced during the trial to some lesser offence the complainant, where anonymous, should remain so throughout the proceedings; we do not think it right by a side wind to put a premium on continuing with a rape charge (when the defendant might be willing to admit to a less serious offence) merely to protect the complainant who would be distressed if her name were publicised."

The report also recommended that anonymity should apply for a complainant who was the alleged victim of a rape by a defendant who also faced a further serious charge, such as attempted murder.

The Heilbron Report dealt only with the issue of anonymity for rape victims, which was introduced with the enactment of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1976. The law has subsequently been changed to give anonymity to the victims of virtually all sexual offences.

Newsquest said it was clear that the provision in section 1 (4) of the 1992 Act, which reflected a similar provision in section 4 (1) of the 1976 Act, was intended to ensure that a complainant in a rape or other sexual offence case would not get anonymity if she were subsequently to be prosecuted for some other offence, such as wasting police time or perverting the course of justice by making a false rape allegation.

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