People who name rape victims on social media or elsewhere will face up to two years in jail under a crackdown being considered by the Justice Secretary.
Robert Buckland is considering raising the maximum sentence from the current six months in prison to two years in order to strengthen the shield of anonymity guaranteed in law to rape victims.
He believes tougher sentences are needed as a deterrent in face of the exponential growth in social media use and the sense of impunity that users can feel online.
The move comes just days after the Government unveiled a package of measures to reverse the collapse in rape prosecutions.
A Ministry of Justice (MoJ) source said: “We need a tougher maximum penalty because identifying a victim of rape or serious sexual assault is a terrible thing to do. On or off line it causes misery and widespread damage to that person’s privacy.
“The scale of social media means thousands of people can see and learn the name or personal details of a rape victim. Law officers have had cases referred to them and it is felt the current summary penalty is not sufficient.
“It is not something that is happening on a daily basis but does happen and on a sufficient regularity to justify an increased penalty.”
The most high-profile case involved the naming of a woman who alleged that she had been raped by footballer Ched Evans. Nine people were fined £624 each after they admitted revealing her identity on social networking sites, including Twitter and Facebook, after Evans’ conviction. The conviction was subsequently quashed.
Some of the defendants called her names including "money-grabbing slut" and "poor little victim". One tweet read: "She is to blame for her own downfall. Let’s find her address."
Alison Saunders, the then director of public prosecutions, said there should be tougher penalties may be needed to deal with Twitter and Facebook users who are "deliberately naming and abusing" rape victims online.
Victims of a sex offence are entitled to remain anonymous for life under the Sexual Offences Act 2003. If an individual has a right of anonymity it means that they have a legal right to remain unnamed to the general public.
They are also not allowed to be named in reports which are released to the general public through the press. This includes women who have made an allegation of rape which is being investigated by police, being put before the courts or has not resulted in a conviction.
Identifying victims and complainants also includes publishing details which may allow the public to work out who the victim is. This can include publishing details of family members or photographs – even if they are blurred or pixelated – which can lead to their identification.
Anonymity is granted in sex assault cases because it is estimated more than half of victims do not report attacks, often because of the sense of shame exacerbated by fears of being identitied.