Identity crisis over sex abuse cases

After the acquittal of Michael Le Vell on child sex abuse charges, is it possible to avoid tarnishing the reputation of innocent men while also supporting real victims in their quest for justice, asks Dani Garavelli

Michael Le Vell during his trial. In Scotland, as things currently stand, two separate sources of evidence are required for a case to come to court, so Le Vell would not have stood trial. Main photograph: Dave Thompson/PA

AS MICHAEL Le Vell stood on the steps of the High Court after his acquittal last week, surrounded by supporters and with his trademark grin on his face, his relief was palpable. Although the wisdom of allowing himself to be photographed with a pint in his hand days after admitting he was an alcoholic was questionable, few people could fail to sympathise with the plight of the Coronation Street veteran whose life was turned upside down by allegations of child sex abuse.

Ever since his accuser’s mother first confronted him over allegations that he raped the girl from the age of six, Le Vell, who plays mechanic Kevin Webster, has been subjected to a very public humiliation; he was written out of the soap and his photograph was splashed all over the front pages. During the trial itself, lurid details, such as the girl’s claim that Le Vell clutched her teddy bear as he had sex with her, were leapt on by the tabloids.

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Now he has been cleared, however, Le Vell is attracting publicity of a different sort. With questions being raised over the paucity of the evidence against him, he has become the poster boy for those falsely accused of sexual offences, with some critics suggesting the tarnishing of his reputation highlights the need for rape defendants to be granted anonymity until after a conviction. There have been cries of “witch-hunt”, the implication being that, in the wake of Jimmy Savile, the Crown Prosecution System is desperate to find well-known people it can prosecute to demonstrate its new-found commitment to crack down on child sex abuse. There is even a growing clamour for the girl to be prosecuted for perjury, with The Sun doing its best to smear her mother by branding her a Satanist.

The Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, last week defended the decision to press ahead with the case, but the notion that Le Vell could be forced to stand trial on the basis of the girl’s uncorroborated statements has left many feeling uneasy. And, though the actor seems to be on his way to rehabilitating his image, his alcoholism and the one-night stands he had during his 25-year marriage are now public knowledge, and the assumption, by some, that “there’s no smoke without fire” is likely to continue to dog him for the rest of his life. Certainly John Leslie’s career has never recovered from sexual assault charges brought against him more than a decade ago, even though they were later dropped, and other defendants, including Terry Harrison, who lost his home after being falsely accused of raping a woman at a party, have told of the devastating impact the claims, and resultant proceedings, have had on their lives.

At the same time, the alacrity with which some have leapt on the Le Vell case as evidence of a system which men’s rights campaigner Peter Lloyd branded a “creaking, dilapidated machine which has scant regard for men’s rights” suggests an underlying agenda. Lloyd went on to suggest thousands of innocent men faced the same plight as Le Vell every year.

So what lessons can be learned from the trial? Is it time to stop naming those accused of rape or would anonymity prevent more victims coming forward and so reduce the chance of guilty men being convicted? And what can be done to help protect men’s reputations without perpetuating the exaggerated claim that false allegations are widespread?

The issue of anonymity is a thorny one for everyone involved in rape cases. In England, anonymity for both the complainer and the defendant was introduced in 1976 (in Scotland, the victim’s anonymity is a matter of convention rather than law), but the anonymity of the defendant was removed in 1988 because it was interfering with police investigations. There are no plans to change the current situation north or south of the Border. However, a flurry of recent acquittals and the decision last week to drop the charges against nine men accused of sexual offences against a 14-year-old girl after her old Twitter account was discovered, have reopened the debate. Earlier this year, chairman for the Bar Council in England, Maura McGowan, came out in favour of the reform because, she said, allegations of a sexual nature, carry such a stigma. After the Le Vell case, Christine Hamilton – herself the subject of accusations – also called for change.

But other cases, including that involving Stuart Hall, who was found guilty of a string of sexual offences, including one against a nine-year-old girl, demonstrate the value of having the identity of a rape suspect in the public domain; after Hall was named, further victims came forward, strengthening the case against the former It’s A Knock-Out presenter.

Having represented men who have been vilified as a result of being charged with a sex offence of which they were later cleared, criminal lawyer John Scott QC feels some degree of protection should be in place. “If a man is charged with a sexual offence, details may appear in the local newspaper, but if the case isn’t proceeded with or the person is acquitted, that may not be reported at all. [Unlike Le Vell] most people do not have teams of PR people or employers who are prepared to try to make sure that their trauma is given the same air time or more air time than the allegations; sitting on a couch talking to daytime presenters isn’t going to be an option for most of my clients.”

Scott is appalled by calls for women who accuse men of rape to be prosecuted in the wake of an acquittal or for a register of “false claimers” to be set up, pointing out a not-guilty verdict doesn’t make the complainer a liar. “But I do think there’s an argument for anonymity up to the point of conviction,” he says. “Many of my clients come from poorer areas where being accused of rape carries a greater stigma than being accused of murder, yet the reporting of the allegation can never be accompanied by a promise that an acquittal, even full vindication, will receive the same level of publicity.

“I think there are lurking in the background, even of some very civilised people, some uncivilised notions about sex offenders, to the extent the torches will be lit up and the mob will form.”

For those campaigners who work with abuse survivors, however, concern for the defendant’s ordeal pales when set along side those prejudices they say militate against victims attaining justice. While not unsympathetic towards Le Vell, Jenny Kemp, co-ordinator at Zero Tolerance, believes issues such as the way in which juries continue to make value judgments about the way women dress or behave are more pressing. And she says granting anonymity to the defendants would simply add another layer of secrecy to a crime which thrives precisely because victims don’t open up about their experiences.

“Sexual crime thrives on secrecy, family honour, the distortion of the bond between the abuser and the abused person – adding any other element of secrecy I think in those kinds of crimes makes it even more damaging,” she says.

Since changing the rules on anonymity is not currently on the table, arguments about it are largely academic. However, one aspect of the Le Vell case which has huge resonance in Scotland just now is the fact that the prosecution case relied on uncorroborated (and sometimes contradictory) evidence from the complainer. Indeed, when the girl first made her claims in September 2011, the Crown Prosecution Service decided there was insufficient evidence to charge him, changing their minds only when the girl remembered fresh incidents and her mother lodged a complaint.

This wavering has led to claims that the CPS was influenced by hysteria over the Savile case. Starmer denies this, but whatever the thinking that lay behind it, the decision to proceed now seems misguided. In Scotland, where, as things currently stand, two separate sources of evidence are required for a case to come to court, Le Vell would not have stood trial. But proposals in the Criminal Justice Bill to scrap the ancient requirement for corroboration will bring Scotland in line with England.

These changes are backed by women’s rights campaigners. As rape is a crime that very often takes place behind closed doors and may go unreported for years, it can be very difficult for police to find evidence to back up the victim’s allegations. Groups such as Rape Crisis Scotland support the scrapping of the corroboration requirement because they believe it would mean more cases coming to court.

But for Scott, the Le Vell case demonstrates how difficult it will be to apply any kind of quality test to such evidence. “Unless the witness was a demonstrable liar, how would you be able to argue that a case had no reasonable prospect of securing a conviction?” he says.

The reality, Scott says, is that, regardless of the law, juries want to see supporting evidence before they will convict. “In England, the prosecutors make great play of it when there is corroboration and the defence make great play of it when there isn’t,” he says. “So corroboration may disappear as a formal evidential requirement, but it won’t disappear from the courtroom.” The danger, then, is that the change in the law will see victims’ expectations falsely raised as more cases come to court, but the number of convictions remains the same.

As Le Vell’s supporters rally round him, a broader question is why the sympathy evoked by his ordeal seems to come at the expense of any sympathy for his accuser. “I do think in general people seem to find it much easier to empathise with the defendant than with the complainer,” says Kemp. “The newspapers are now batting for Le Vell and they’re trying to do a character assassination of her, which is very much par for the course.”

In particular, Kemp takes exception to the way in which the case is being used to peddle the notion that false rape claims are common. In fact, a survey carried out by the CPS showed that in a 17-month period that saw 5,651 prosecutions for rape only 38 people were prosecuted in connection with making false rape claims. “There’s a strong myth that there are all these women who are out to make money to get fame, they want to be celebrities, and you think, ‘really?’ What would possess someone to think that was an easy route to fame?

“In fact what this research shows is that very few women make false claims and those who do tend to be vulnerable and in need of some kind of intervention therapy.”

Today, Le Vell is rebuilding his life; he is said to have been offered a £250,000 deal to return to Coronation Street so long as he brings his drinking under control and there are rumours he might follow his former co-star Helen Flanagan into the I’m A Celebrity jungle. No amount of success can give him back the time he lost as his court case unfolded, nor take away the pain of having his reputation trashed and his character flaws exposed. But does his experience, however traumatic, justify attempts by some to weight the system even further against the many rape victims who struggle to get justice?

“I think there’s an instinctive feeling in a lot of the population that you need fairness, and their idea of fairness is absolute parity between what happens to the complainer and the defendant,” says Kemp.

“People latch on to this idea without thinking that it’s not fair that 99 per cent of rapes affect women and, if women have to live with that kind of vulnerability, then men have to live with the vulnerability that they may be exposed to public scrutiny and for a few men that may work out badly. If they stopped and thought about that I reckon their opinions might change.” «

Twitter: @DaniGaravelli1