Blog - Commentary

Assumption of guilt

Has the presumption of innocence now changed to an assumption of guilt, asks high profile media lawyer Paul Tweed.

Recent criminal defendants have suffered from an assumption of guilt Zigniew Guzowski

While we in the UK have not reached the stage of criminal suspects being hauled out before the international news media in handcuffs, with their police mug shots making the front pages, nonetheless the recent spate of high profile celebrities being brought before the Courts on rape and other serious sexual crimes has created a media frenzy that presents a new and developing challenge for the British judicial system.

During the course of the past year, in the aftermath of the Jimmy Savile scandal, we have seen a procession of household names, most in their twilight years, being subjected to extensive, worldwide scrutiny in the period leading up to and following their arrest and being charged, with the inevitable consequences that, regardless of the outcome, their reputations are sullied forever.  The reality is that they have to wait a year or more before their case reaches trial stage, when even a not guilty verdict can still leave a doubt in the minds of many.    If we now have the prospect of trial by media, I believe that the criminal process needs to be reviewed and the question asked as to whether anonymity should be granted to the accused, as well as the victim, in very serious, if not all, crimes of this nature.

A balance of course needs to be struck to ensure that those found guilty do not escape the adverse publicity their crime deserves, together with the public opprobrium that will follow such a verdict, which in turn should act as an encouragement for other victims to come forward, while providing an illustration of the effectiveness of our judicial system.

I would however suggest that granting anonymity to the accused would not in fact thwart the aforesaid objectives, which would be accomplished just as effectively at the end of a trial, while avoiding the innocent having his good name and reputation utterly destroyed from the outset and the resultant trauma inflicted on his family. 

On the one hand, justice for the victim and encouragement for other victims to come forward must always be a priority, but both these objectives can be achieved, some would say just as effectively, by a guilty verdict, with an appropriate retrospective review of the evidence and the crime.  Such an approach would also serve to provide some protection to the reputation of the accused who turns out to be innocent, and would avoid the unimaginable trauma that some of these individuals have been subjected to in the full glare of the world’s media and public opinion.

We are now living in a new era of instant, worldwide communication, and this requires a more sensitive and fairer treatment of all parties thrust into the media and judicial cauldron, particularly in the current environment in the UK which at times has resembled a 17th century Salem witch-hunt. How long before our suspects are hauled out before the news media in handcuffs and their police mug shots making the front pages?

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10 March 2014

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