Legislation giving lifelong anonymity to teachers accused of committing criminal offences against children at their schools will come into force next week.
The proposals became law after the Education Act 2011 received Royal Assent in November 2011 but will finally come into force on Monday.
It means that teachers have become the first group of people in British legal history to be given automatic anonymity when they are accused of a criminal offence.
The anonymity ends only if the teacher is charged with a criminal offence, or a court agrees to an application that it is in the interests of justice that it should be lifted.
The anonymity also ends if the Education Secretary publishes information about the person who is the subject of the allegation in connection with an investigation or decision relating to the allegation, or if the General Teaching Council for Wales publishes information about the individual in connection with an investigation, hearing or decision on the allegation.
The individual teacher may also waive his or her anonymity.
The Act means that it is now unlawful to name a teacher who has been accused of assaulting or sexually abusing a child at his or her school if that teacher has not been charged with a criminal offence – even if the accusation is referred to in public, for example at an Employment Tribunal hearing at which the teacher claims unfair dismissal.
The Newspaper Society said it “lobbied hard on section 13 of the Education Act 2011 resulting in amendments during the Bill’s passage but it remains a wide-ranging offence", adding:
It was described by concerned peers in the House of Lords as ‘an unprecedented attack upon free speech’ which protected the identification of teachers, at the expense of potential prosecution of pupil, parent, school, education authority, police, media, whistleblower, or anyone else for publicising an allegation made by a school child or their fellow pupils of a crime perpetrated by a teacher against the pupil, even if admitted to be true.
According to the NS:
If an editor, publisher, company or officer of the company is charged with breach of the reporting restrictions, it will be a defence to prove that at the time of the alleged unlawful publication, the person was not aware and neither suspected nor had reason to suspect that the publication included the matter in question or that the allegation in question had been made. Provisions governing the liability of internet service providers are set out in schedule 4 of the 2011 Act.
Publication of anything which identifies a teacher who is alleged to have committed an offence against a pupil at his or her school is punishable on summary conviction by a fine of up to £5,000.
The news was today condemned by the Society of editors. Executive director Bob Satchwell said:
“It will be a criminal offence for anyone – pupil, parent, police, school, local authority, whistle-blower, media – even to inform parents or the general public that an identified teacher has admitted that the allegation is true and has resigned, has been disciplined, or even cautioned for the offence.
"Although we acknowledge teachers’ fears about false accusations, the most important issue is surely to protect children. Malicious allegations by pupils are extremely rare and alongside this the laws of libel, contempt and confidence already restrict newspapers from repeating and publishing unsubstantiated accusations."