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Sexual offences and anonymity for victims

By David Banks

Latest update: October 2016

In the UK victims of sexual offences are given anonymity as soon as they report a sexual offence. That report can be to any third party – a bystander, a friend or colleague. Therefore, it is not necessary for the matter to have been reported to the police for anonymity to apply. Anonymity lasts for the victim’s lifetime, regardless of the outcome of any subsequent trial of the offence.

Anonymity can be lifted if:

  • A victim over the age of 18 gives written consent, without duress
  • The victim dies
  • A judge orders that anonymity be lifted in the interests of justice (rare)
  • If the victim is charged with an offence in relation to the complaint – e.g. perverting the course of justice, or perjury

Defendants in sexual offence cases do not get any anonymity.

Sexual offending covers a wide range of offences and in the UK now includes new offences such as:

  • voyeurism,
  • trafficking for sexual exploitation
  • grooming

You must not publish ‘any matter’ that would identify someone as a victim of a sexual offence. The offence is committed if a detail is included which allows someone who knows the victim to identify them as the being the victim of this offence.

Penalties

It is a criminal offence, a sexual offence, in the UK to identify a victim of a sexual offence. Sometimes the prosecuting authorities will charge not only the publication, but also its editor, or other responsible manager. The penalty is usually a fine of less than £5,000, but a conviction for this type of offence can have far-reaching consequences personally, and is to be avoided.

Identification on social media

While publications are often careful to anonymise victims, sometimes conversations on the publisher’s website, or on social media may identify a victim.

The publisher would be wise to remove these where possible when they arise. A publisher can remove such material from their own site, or even prevent third party comment in the first instance.

On platforms like Twitter there is nothing a publisher can do to prevent publication. However if the identification is made on the publisher’s Facebook page, the publisher can remove, or hide such material and they would be well-advised to do so.

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Written by David Banks, Media Law Consultant and Trainer. David runs the Law, Ethics and Copyright workshops for NUJ Training Wales.

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