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‘It’s all in the name’, says QC. But is it?

By Burton Mail  |  Posted: February 19, 2013

Neil O’Driscoll, a lawyer with the Smith Partnership

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“IT was a total nightmare,” says Frank Hood, the words tripping off his tongue with an ease belying the painful recollections behind them.

“I did not sleep – and I don’t think Ann (his wife) has got over it yet.

“It was the thought hanging over my head that I would have to go to court accused of a very serious crime and knowing I did not do it and it was all lies and that I hoped someone would believe me.”

The former Derbyshire county councillor and South Derbyshire district councillor is casting his mind back about three years to when he was the target of a vindictive sexual assault allegation.

His name was dragged through the mire for at least 18 months before he was cleared of attacking an 84-year-old woman following a two-day trial at Derby Crown Court.

The case cost him £18,000, his political career and almost his health.

His accuser escaped unscathed, a point which appears to rankle almost as much as the fact the case was brought in the first place.

So would the 75-year-old Tory have felt differently if the law had not only guaranteed the anonymity of his accuser but of himself, the defendant?

It seems a pertinent question, given the call by leading criminal barrister Maura McGowan, chairman of the Bar Council, for the law to be changed to ban the naming of rape suspects, a situation which existed before 1988.

Mr Hood, it should be stressed, was accused of a lesser offence – but there would seem to be obvious parallels to the circumstances he found himself in compared to those now being experienced by the likes of BBC journalist Stuart Hall.

I’m expecting Mr Hood to back the eminent lawyer’s call, but his answer is nuanced – and surprising.

“On the one hand I quite agree with her; I think ‘excellent idea’,” he says.

“Why should any name be out there in public when you have not done anything wrong?

“But, on the other hand, I got so much support from the Mail and the Labour Party; not one of them believed it to be true.

“And the letters I got from my constituents were amazing.

“Those and the phone calls were a tremendous help for me and Ann.

“If there had been anonymity, nobody would have known about the situation and we would not have had the support.”

It’s an unusual take on the argument and one Ms McGowan and her supporters may not have expected.

Mr Hood has some sympathy with rape victims and their supporters, who argue that anonymity for rape suspects would have a ‘terrible’ effect on the abused.

They argue that many victims feel their cases are too weak on their own but that if the name of the suspect is publicised it will encourage other victims to come forward.

Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper has also voiced fears that anonymity for rape victims will send a message to jurors and alleged rape victims that the victims should not be believed.

Neil O’Driscoll, a solicitor from Burton-based Smith Partnership, believes, however, that although it is a ‘difficult’ issue, Ms McGowan is ‘talking a lot of sense’.

“The problem with rape and somebody accused of it is the stigma attached,” he says.

“The mud will always be there regardless of whether they are acquitted or not.”

Mr O’Driscoll says even in cases which result in the accused being cleared, the accusation still results in the ‘decimation’ of their characters.

A celebrity cited by the lawyer, who was cleared of rape in 1995, is Craig Charles, the Coronation Street actor and former star of Red Dwarf.

After his acquittal, he said: “The fact that my name and address along with my picture can appear on the front of the papers before the so-called ‘victim’ has even signed a statement proves that anonymity for rape defendants is a must and that the law must be changed.”

Tracey Hardie, manager of Burton’s Sexual Abuse and Rape Advice Centre (SARAC) is urging lawmakers and the public to think carefully about the potential effects of changing the law.

“Everyone should ask themselves if any change to the law will assist a person to report a serious crime that will protect them as well as their and our loved ones, or will it maybe serve to prevent people from reporting further, which would be a travesty?”

In 2010, the Government dropped plans to reintroduce anonymity for rape victims after sustained pressure, citing insufficient evidence.

Whether Ms McGowan’s intervention will change ministerial minds remains to be seen.

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