Community resolution and anonymity for suspects: a dangerous combination

The Labour party’s criticism of the use of so-called community resolution to deal with serious crime adds weight to doubts raised last month about giving anonymity to people arrested by the police.

The combination of the two will fuel fears that justice in this country is increasingly being administered in secret.

It is possible for someone responsible for a serious crime to escape a criminal record by saying sorry to a victim – whose decision to accept the apology might well be influenced by an offer of substantial compensation, perhaps from a high-profile person with a reputation to protect.

All without any of this being made public.

Community resolution is aimed at less serious offences. It entails police asking the offender to apologise to and/or compensate the victim rather than prosecuting them in court. The offender must accept responsibility, consent to do as asked and have no relevant past offending history. The agreement of the victim is also desirable, though not mandatory.

The thinking is that is takes pressure off an overloaded judicial system, avoids the inconvenience for the victim of a lengthy wait for justice, gives the offender quick resolution and makes use of a police officer’s ability to evaluate and fairly adjudicate situations. It is mainly intended to be used at the scene of the crime or anti-social incident, but can also be used after an arrest.

Labour’s concern is that there has been a steep rise in the number of serious crimes being dealt with by community resolution.

Up to 14 per cent of recorded violent offences are being dealt with in this way by some forces.

It is also being used to deal with domestic violence, for which it was never intended.

Crimes that are dealt with by community resolution do not reach the courts and consequently are rarely reported.

When they are it is often because a newspaper has been alerted to an arrest, particularly if the offender is well-known.

Now this is where things get worrying.

Police are increasingly dealing with crimes using a method where the outcome is not normally made public. Virtually the only way it does become public is when an arrest is made, a newspaper is able to confirm the name of the person arrested, and then report what action is, or is not, subsequently taken.

Police plans to give suspects anonymity until charged threaten this process of scrutiny.

More generally, there are also fears that if arrests are made in secret potential witnesses or victims will be prevented from coming forward.

The police, however, say giving suspects anonymity will prevent damaging the reputations of arrested people who may never face charges.

It will also bring consistency to the practices of police forces across the country.

The fact is, though, that naming someone who has been arrested is not illegal, and suspects already have considerable protection from the law.

The law of contempt limits what newspapers can say once legal proceedings have become active (deemed to be when an arrest has been made, a warrant for arrest issued, a summons issued or someone has been orally charged).

And if someone arrested is not subsequently charged they may be able to sue any publication that named them for the damage done to their reputation.

This is what Hacked Off supporter Chris Jefferies did when he was named as being on suspicion of murdering Joanna Yeates in December 2012.

He was not charged, and successfully sued eight national newspapers.

Despite all the rhetoric about the importance of being allowed to name arrested people, in reality newspapers name very few.

When they do so it is usually because they believe that there is considerable public interest in the information, and they weigh this against the risk of legal action if charges are not brought.

It is believed that the new guidelines being mulled over by the Association of Chief Police Officers will allow for arrested people to be named in the “interests of justice and to prevent and detect crime”.

So what we are facing is a situation where judgements about whether to name suspects in the public interest are slipping away from the Press into the hands of the police.

The misuse of community resolution and plans for anonymity for crime suspects should on their own concern anyone who values open justice.

Together, they pose a much more significant threat.

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About John Wilson

Editor of Hereford Times, Ludlow Advertiser, Stroud News and Journal, Wilts and Gloucestershire Standard and Gloucestershire Gazette series. Journalist for more than 30 years.
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