Is justice being turned on its head for celebrity defendants?

So, a jury has listened to all of the evidence and reached the conclusion that Bill Roache is not guilty of rape and indecent assault having faced charges relating to events that were alleged to have taken place over 40 years’ ago (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-26068034). Subsequent press coverage of the case has questioned whether it was right that the case was ever brought to trial, given the inconsistencies that emerged in the prosecution evidence presented, and the inherent challenges faced in seeking to prove ‘ beyond all reasonable doubt’ that the alleged events happened at specific times, in specific places, over four decades before. There have already been calls for a review of pre-trial review procedures to ensure that there is adequate prima facie evidence to support a prosecution before the matter is put to a full trial, and the reintroduction of some form of grand jury process, still in place in the US but phased out in the UK in the early 1800s. These are interesting suggestions and deserve to be considered in detail. It might also be time to think about the introduction of a statute of limitation for criminal offences. This could establish a presumption against bringing prosecutions in cases where there was no complaint made at the time without the prior permission of a High Court judge who could be asked to review the reasons why there was a delay between the alleged events and the subsequent complaint, and whether the time period between the two is such that the prospects of a successful prosecution have been fatally damaged

The case also raises some interesting questions about the nature of police investigations into alleged criminal conduct by celebrities (and those in the public eye more generally). Paradoxically – and despite the English legal maxim that defendants are innocent until proven guilty – the media attention given to investigations of allegations against ‘famous’ people, means that a trial is often the only way that their innocence can be established. From a PR perspective, it is almost inevitably most damaging to the reputation of an individual to have been taken in for questioning or arrested in a blaze of publicity, and then to have the investigation dropped at a later stage with barely a mention. The fact of the arrest and the implication that ‘there is no smoke without fire’ leaves an almost indelible stain on the individual’s character. At least a ‘celebrity trial’ creates the opportunity for a ‘dramatic’ not guilty verdict and a press conference on the court steps at the end of the process

This could be addressed, at least in part, if the same rights to anonymity were extended to defendants as they are to complainants in these cases. I have previously blogged that I am not convinced that the benefits of anonymity in criminal cases outweigh the disadvantages (https://andrewpearce16.wordpress.com/2013/09/11/anonymity-no-but-accelerated-justice-is-essential/) but there may be a case for introducing greater restrictions on the reporting of investigations and arrests until such time as a decision has been made to formally charge somebody with an offence

What is clear is that the Roache case raises a number of issues that need to be looked at as part of the on-going review of the criminal justice system. As Roache himself said outside court yesterday, the current system produces “no winners”

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