The right to anonymity at the police station

Home Secretary Theresa May has recently voiced her views regarding police arrests, stating that there should be a “right of anonymity” for a crime suspect when they have been arrested. The Home Secretary stated that they should only be named if and when the person is subsequently charged with an offence.

The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) has proposed that there should be a blanket ban on revealing the identities of individuals in all types of criminal cases. However it is proposed that a reviewing police officer may, on the basis of the interest of justice to encourage victims and witnesses to come forward, decide to allow the publication of an arrested person’s name. This would at the very least safeguard a level of scrutiny and reasoning in releasing an arrested person’s name.

What is an arrest?

Under Section 24 Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and Code G of the guidelines, there are two elements for a lawful arrest which both have to be satisfied:

  1. A person’s involvement or suspected involvement or attempted involvement in the commission of a criminal offence; and
  2. Reasonable grounds for believing that the person’s arrest is necessary.

It can never be necessary to arrest a person unless there are reasonable grounds to suspect them of committing an offence.

The idea that an arrest is somehow a “secret”

As the law stands, arrest is far from secret for constitutional and practical purposes. Firstly, under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, suspects under arrest are entitled to free advice from a legal representative of their choice or from the duty solicitor available on that day. Secondly, suspects under arrest have the general right not to be held in solitary confinement in the sense that they are entitled to have notice of their arrest communicated to a family member or a nominated person. This may be denied for a relatively short time in exceptional circumstances for investigation.

Does being arrested automatically infer guilt of an offence?

Being arrested should not suggest that an individual is guilty of an offence; it is simply to enable the police to investigate an alleged offence.

Police practices may vary widely from force to force with some individuals caught up in criminal enquiries being named in the press whilst others have remained anonymous.  A decision by the police to publish the name of a person arrested must be made after consideration of the rights of that person, including their rights under ECHR article 8 (right to respect private and family life) on a case-by-case basis.

Unfortunately, the arrest of several individuals has generated publicity because many members of the public wrongly believe that an arrest must mean that someone has done something wrong. This is not always the case for example, a person can be arrested on false and/ or malicious allegations or when the police have wrongly used their powers of arrest.  Publicising the arrest can have far reaching consequences for an individual. It can damage their reputation, their employment and future job prospects. Furthermore, it has devastating consequences on their family and their standing in the community, with little or no compensation.

The case of the retired Bristol schoolmaster Christopher Jefferies is a shocking example of a trial by the media. Mr Jefferies was arrested in December 2010 in connection with the murder of his tenant, Joanna Yeates, on the account of another tenant, who was later convicted of the murder. There was widespread coverage of Mr Jefferies arrest in the media, before he was completely vindicated without any charge and successively won extensive damages.

The media has also extensively covered the arrests of celebrity broadcasters during the Operation Yewtree inquiry into alleged sexual offences, including that of Rolf Harris, who has not so far been charged with any criminal offence.

Should you be arrested or asked to attend an interview with the Police, you will always be entitled to free legal advice.  EmeryJohnson have a team of Solicitors and Police Station Representatives who are available to assist you 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.  Do not hesitate to call us.