April 16 2024
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‘Perfect storm’ for the falsely accused

‘Perfect storm’ for the falsely accused

court usher cutFACT (Falsely Accused Carers & Teachers) held its Spring conference at the Centre for Criminology of Oxford University. Ros Burnett, a senior research associate at the Institute, worked tirelessly to put on what turned out to be a very stimulating and interesting day, which was well attended.

The first part of the Conference involved small group discussions about strategies for overcoming the damage and shock of false accusations. In my group, the worst thing was said to be pressure to plead guilty. What made things better? Joining FACT was a turning point. Keeping a diary, and speaking to parents and staff for references. Also, developing a black sense of humour!

What made things worse? Victims selling their stories to the press afterwards.

The formal proceedings began with a stirring address by David Jessel, formerly of BBC’s Rough Justice. He explained how cuts to legal aid, the culture of ‘the victim must be heard/believe the victim’, judicial obliviousness to modern culture (e.g. how easy it is to download porn), were going to create a perfect storm within the criminal justice system. He contrasted the differing approach of Lord Woolf in 2001, who stressed the importance of protecting the innocent from wrongful conviction, and Lord Judge, whose recent lecture suggests the courts have adopted the reverse approach.

He stressed ‘the sheer fragility of the evidence’ in child sex abuse cases, from his experience at the CCRC: one person’s word against another’s. Nowadays, he noted, the media dismiss concerns about miscarriages of justice as ‘a bit 1980s.’

Due process
Professor Carolyn Hoyle and her colleague Dr Mai Sato gave an extremely important presentation, showing how moral panic about sex crime is distorting the criminal justice system. It is shifting away from a ‘due process’ system, which provides safeguards for the accused, to a ‘crime control’ system, which prosecutes at any cost, and for which ‘due process’ safeguards get in the way. The new approach to prosecution ‘throws caution to the winds.’

They criticised the last DPP Keir Starmer’s approach to complainants: ‘we don’t ask whether they are telling the truth.’ They explained the obvious dangers of this, arguing that instead we should look very carefully at victim credibility issues.

Dr Sato presented case studies of two historic child sexual abuse cases that went to the CCRC, the cases of D and W. In both cases, they did not have enough evidence to challenge all of the charges, but the Court of Appeal part-quashed charges in both cases.

Adam Speker, a media barrister, then spoke about the law of libel, which has recently changed following the Defamation Act 2013. This Act requires complainants to sue the maker of a defamatory statement, rather than the distributor. He explained that website providers are not liable, unless the existence of a libellous statement has been brought to their attention. He discussed the recent case in the European Court of Justice against Google, and the ‘right to be forgotten.’ He stressed that it is important to ask for an incorrect statement to be corrected, or removed from an internet archive.

Professor Terry Thomas and his colleague David Thompson presented a talk about the sex offenders’ register. They noted the lack of Parliamentary debate before this was introduced, and questioned what its function really is. The increased requirements for notification e.g. credit cards and bank details are becoming more controlling. There is an interesting legal question starting to develop, about whether such increased controls are turning into an instrument of continued punishment, which might be the subject of a legal challenge. 50% of applications for review are successful.

There was then a lively Q & A session with a large panel of Margaret Jervis, Professor Paul Rumney, Dennis Eady, myself, Mark Barlow, Mark Newby, Rosie Waterhouse and Claire Curtis-Thomas. A number of speakers from the floor were concerned about retaining historic data about arrests which did not lead to a charge. Margaret Jervis commented on the ‘moral crusade’ around historic abuse cases, and how the lessons of such scandals as Cleveland have yet to be learned. Claire Curtis-Thomas cautioned against focusing on matters like false memory, arguing that FACT should concentrate on the problems with current police procedures, and how their investigations should be improved. Rose Waterhouse spoke of her PhD research on the ‘satanic panic’. Mark Barlow commented that the criminal justice system in this country was broken, in his view. A speaker from the floor commented that the judicial system appeared ‘dumbed-down.’ Mark Newby stressed the crucial importance, if a person is accused of historic abuse, in accessing specialist advice early on, to build the best case strategy.

A tribute from the floor was paid to George Jensen, who attended, and his tireless work for FACT over many years.

We then departed into the blazing summer sunshine.