April 20 2024
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Justice, moral panic and the abuse pendulum

Justice, moral panic and the abuse pendulum

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Beyond the Wall,  HMP Glenochil, Scotland Gold Award for Watercolour

Beyond the Wall, HMP Glenochil, Scotland Gold Award for Watercolour

I have been acting for the victims of child abuse for the last 20 years. It is an emotive subject, which usually provokes interest and debate whenever I go to dinner parties (I usually avoid telling other guests what I do for a living).

  • Peter Garsden is the sole principal of QualitySolicitors Abney Garsden (www.abneys.co.uk) of Cheadle Hulme in Cheshire. The firm has one of the largest dedicated child abuse compensation department in the country
  • Peter Garsden’s essay will appear in a forthcoming Justice Gap collection on them theme of ‘Justice in a time of moral panic’

There are a number of questions which are usually asked. I try to pretend I have not heard them before. I usually try to change the subject before conversation descends into a depressive spiral. Because celebrities are now being prosecuted, Hello magazine has now joined up with the Guardian. A pensive furrow usually appears on the forehead then: ‘With these abuse cases, how do you know that these victims are telling the truth when it happened so long ago?’

I try to restrain my indignation and reply in a way that will not start an argument.

The point is that sexual abuse is of prurient interest to most. It is one of the few crimes which rarely produces any other witnesses than the participants, one of whom is usually much older and more powerful than the other. It is thus hardly surprising that the public will think it is very difficult to prove due to a paucity of evidence.

If an abuser is acquitted, the public and the media often illogically leap to the belief that the alleged victim is telling lies; whereas if the perpetrator is convicted, nothing less than hanging will suffice as a punishment.

Obviously child abuse provokes intense heightened emotion. It is not a subject in which one can purport to have little interest without appearing to be lacking in humanity. The emotional content includes anger and hatred, not only in those who experience it, but also for those involved on the periphery and, to a limited extent, the media-obsessed public.

New and shocking
When I started dealing with child abuse compensation cases 20 years ago it was something new and shocking. The publicity was limited to children’s homes, and the victims were usually the product of the criminal justice system. At one time 41 out of 43 police forces had a major child abuse investigation in their area. The Crown Prosecution Service and the police were no strangers to the emotions that abuse evokes.

All the service providers were learning about a subject that had not been discussed or studied in any depth. The law was not equipped to deal with such cases. There was, however, a feeling that something had to be done and quickly. From 1990 to around 2003 we all struggled to cope with criminal prosecutions, compensation claims, treatment of victims, counselling methods etc.

It was an era of adrenalin pumped development. It certainly took its toll on me.

It was characterised as something which only happened to the poor in children’s homes even though, at the time, rumours were circulating that it spanned every echelon of society right up to the top of government. It was much easier to make a complaint against a care worker than a famous politician.

Support groups were formed by both victims and the alleged abusers. Politicians struggled to create laws quickly enough to keep pace with the almost endless outpouring of abuse disclosures. The media could not get enough stories. There were front page headlines in the News of the World with rows of wanted child sex offenders. Matters reached a climax in 1997 with the Brass Eye programme (‘Paedogeddon’), a spoof on the hysteria surrounding the media’s treatment of the subject which provoked countless complaints from the public and politicians alike.

There then followed a Panorama programme by David Rose (‘In the Name of the Children’, 2000) which alleged that there was a new breed of false allegations against individuals who had been wrongfully convicted due to evidence brought by victims, often with criminal records. Claire Curtis-Thomas, then a Labour MP for Crosby, then persuaded the House of Commons to hold a select committee inquiry to which I gave evidence.

Sitting on the committee were the present prime minister David Cameron and the now vociferous abuse campaigner Tom Watson MP. It concluded:

‘… there is a strong case for establishing special safeguards for trials in historical child abuse cases… we believe that some form of time limitation is necessary… after a period of ten years, prosecutions should only proceed with the court’s permission.’

‘… it is necessary to tighten the rules for excluding such evidence, so that “similar fact” evidence is only admitted if it bears a striking similarity to the evidence relating to the charged offence.’

It found that there was ‘potential for compensation to act as an inducement for giving false or exaggerated evidence’ and called upon the Criminal Cases Review Commission and the appeal court to ‘take a robust approach to the review of suspected wrongful convictions’.

Reading 2003 conclusions in 2014 makes interesting reading indeed.

Even though its conclusions were dismissed by the Home Office, the police had been so persuaded that they should not ‘trawl’ for evidence, that historical abuse became a low priority in a list of competing crimes, the police are tasked to investigate.

Even though I went to see the Chief Constable of Dyfed Powys, Terence Grange, who then led on serious abuse investigations, and asked him not to change the force policy, by then a manual on how to conduct such investigations had been written, which included a strong prohibition against ‘trawling’ for evidence.

For the next seven or eight years, I witnessed a lack of interest by the police in prosecuting abuse which took place many years ago. Understandably, such cases required a considerable amount of effort in tracing witnesses, finding documents, and prosecuting often very elderly individuals who usually had no previous convictions.

People used to ask me what I would do with my time once the North Wales Tribunal cases were over. I used to smile in the knowledge that we were only scraping the frost off the tip of the iceberg. Although I had heard rumours about many of the celebrities now being prosecuted for abuse, I was not prepared for the outpouring of allegations that followed ‘Savile Day’, October 3 2012.

The rumours that I had been hearing for years started to come true. The allegations surrounding the likes of Cyril Smith, and others have borne fruit. No doubt because allegations have now been made against members of parliament, historical abuse has provoked action with the announcement of a nationwide enquiry into the subject.

The Rochdale and Rotherham Taxi Drivers scandal has shown that the police have adopted the wrong attitude to abuse by focussing too much upon the ability of the victim to give evidence rather than, as Keir Starmer put it, concentrating on ways of building the case against the accused.

Mr Starmer was very clever to avoid using the banned word ‘trawling’, but said very much the same thing in another way.


  1. The pendulum swings too and fro in the law.
  2. At the moment insurance companies are campaigning hard to lead the public to believe that anyone who claims compensation is somehow morally blameworthy. Although statistics reveal that the “compensation culture” is a myth, it has gained credence in the minds of many commentators. Many of our clients start by apologising for even thinking of compensation, when in reality we should be apologising the appallingly low level of compensation awards for abuse.
  3. The scales of justice, with the checks and balances the law provides, should redress any extreme swings in one direction or another.
  4. Abuse has such emotive content that there will always be an inherent danger that emotion will influence any legal decision in the area.
  5. The way in which abuse is dealt with by professionals is now much more mature and better developed than when I started dealing with the subject.
  6. Whilst there are many ways in which the law can be improved, it has now changed into a form, which is able to deal with most situations that arise. It is, in many ways, far more advanced than most other legal systems.
  7. Developments since Savile have shown that abuse spans all echelons of society rather than just the poor. Hence it is being taken more seriously now by politicians who have set up numerous inquiries established to ‘learn lessons from the past’.
  8. The motive to deflect attention from Parliament may have benefits for the many victims of abuse, who will never have the courage to disclose and will take the secrets of their past to their graves.

© Peter Garsden