Harder for criminals to keep names secret

The number of criminals able to keep their identities secret forever is falling.

The latest figures on permanent name suppression come as the long-running case of a prominent Central Otago man involved in an indecent assault allegation continues to keep the issue of secrecy in the spotlight.

A complaint was lodged with police last week against a former MP who published the name of the man, who had final name suppression stemming from a 2012 incident.

The Sensible Sentencing Trust has characterised such cases as "name suppression madness", and it wants political parties to review the laws that justify it.

But figures issued under the Official Information Act show it is already becoming rarer for the courts to grant permanent name suppression.

Canterbury University media law expert Professor Ursula Cheer said her students had researched the figures this year. They found 880 people were granted permanent name suppression in 2009 - of whom 218 were convicted - and the figure dropped steadily each year, reaching 354 in 2012, including 132 convicted offenders.

Cheer said public outcry about name suppression tended not to take into account defendants' right to a fair trial and victims' entitlement to privacy.

"It is very easy for lobby groups to say 'that sex offender should be outed; he's a well-known New Zealander and everyone should know'.

"They don't know the detail in that case that the judge actually had to take into account. In this area it is really easy to criticise without knowing the full facts."

Cheer said the perception that defendants easily achieved anonymity was ill-informed: "The defence: 'This will stress me, or upset me or embarrass me' - that's not enough."

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The only category in which permanent name suppressions have increased is in cases of sex crimes, where they have climbed from 76 in 2009 to 102 in 2013.

Wellington lawyer Nikki Pender has represented victims of sex crimes who seek to unmask their abuser through lifting their own name suppression, including a recent high-profile case in which two sisters took on a Christchurch paedophile who had abused them.

Pender said she was in favour of a system in which interim name suppression applied in all cases, leading to greater opportunity to suppress the relationship of the victim to the defendant, rather than the name of the accused.

She said naming defendants eased suspicion on other people, helped encourage other victims to come forward and was a crime deterrent.

 - The Dominion Post

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