Submitted by Timothy Hackett, J A Hughes Solicitors (CA 142)
I have represented two people who have been the subject of such allegations.
At the outset can I state that I think both the Police and Criminal Justice System have a very difficult task in dealing with these cases. We are all interested in ensuring that paedophiles are apprehended and suitably punished. Equally, we must be interested in ensuring that the innocent are not wrongly convicted. Regrettably it is my belief that these cases, given the current public mood, and the methods of investigation, are more open to miscarriages of justice than any other area of criminal law.
You set out five questions which I will address:
1. I believe that "trawling" does lead to unreliable evidence being obtained and the possibility of miscarriages of justice. In all other cases the complainant comes forward to the Police and although you may have some false complaints made in such circumstances, it does add credence to their claims. In these cases however the Police visit former residents, often a number of times, and these residents then make allegations. It is easier for somebody to make a false allegation in that situation than if they had to approach the Police Station. The conversations between the Police and the former resident are not tape-recorded and frequently there are only limited notes on the conversation available. It would be open to any unscrupulous Officer to suggest names to the residents. I am not saying that has happened in either of my cases. Equally it would be easy for an Officer, inadvertently, to give information which would help the potential complainant to identify the "suspects" and therefore, again, could lead to false allegations.
2. The attitude of the Crown Prosecution Service has by and large in these cases been to take the case to Court and to allow the Jury to decide. In some cases they have withdrawn charges eg in one of my cases the charges were withdrawn because one of the complainants was in prison for raping old ladies. Clearly the Crown thought he would not make an ideal witness. In other cases the Prosecution have not proceeded because the same witnesses have given evidence in another trial and the Jury have acquitted the defendant and therefore they feel that the witnesses would be unlikely to come up to proof. The problem is that a defendant could face allegations from numerous complainants. The prosecution then withdrew some of them as they ware unreliable complainants. The Jury never get to hear about those complainants and therefore do not know that allegations which even the Crown consider to be dubious have also been made against this complainant by people who were in the residential home at the same as the complainants whose allegations have come before the Court.
3. The passage of time has caused immense problems in these cases. Often potential witnesses cannot be traced, or are dead and documents have been lost or destroyed. This means that invariably you end up with the only evidence in the case being that of the complainants against the defendant, and it is then up to the Jury to decide who they believe. The Courts do have a power to stay a case on the basis of abuse of process, but this power is rarely used. The difficulty in imposing a time limit however would be that in some cases of child abuse, the complainant feels uncomfortable in discussing the issues for many years, and only at a later stage will come forward. In a case that I am familiar with, two girls were abused by a stepfather and did not go to the Police. They later learnt that their stepfather had remarried and that there were girls in the family of a similar age to their age when they were abused. At that stage they made a complaint in order to protect the children of the new family. If there was a time bar on any child abuse cases then they would not have been able to make their complaint.
4. The fact that compensation is available is already common knowledge. Regrettably many of the complainants are people who had, and have, emotional problems and in many cases they also have numerous previous convictions. Many of the complainants are also addicted to drugs. As a Criminal Lawyer I am well aware that people who are addicted to drugs would frankly be willing to sell their Grandmothers if they thought they could obtain money to feed their habit. Regrettably therefore, if they are approached by the Police, and they are aware that compensation is available, it is all to easy for them to make a false allegation in order to obtain money for their own ends.
5. Often these cases turn on whether the Jury believe the defendant or the complainants. Effectively the Prosecution proceeds on the basis of weight of numbers and, in my view, the Juries often make their decision on the basis of weight of numbers. Abolition of the requirement for corroboration was a retrograde step and to allow corroboration by numbers in cases such as this are dangerous.
This is a very difficult area as I stated at the beginning of my submissions. My recommendations would be as follows:
1. That the use of trawling cease. If trawling is not to cease then certainly any interview with former residents who are potential complainants, or witnesses, should be tape-recorded.
2. There should not be a time limit on the making of allegations but the Courts should make more use of the power to stay proceedings for abuse of process due to passage of time.
3. The Law regarding the need for corroboration should be reviewed.