A change of course for the Home Office?

One of the most significant aspects of the recent Home Affairs Committee report (see below) is that its recommendations point in exactly the opposite direction from those contained in the Government white paper Justice for All. In a brief piece in the New Statesman (which appears in an even briefer form in the magazine due to a last-minute crisis of space) I explore
this question.

It may be noted that, although it has played a significant role in bringing the dangers of police trawling to the attention of a wider public, the Observer has not carried any coverage at all of the Home Affairs Committee Report. Instead, the edition of 10 November devoted massive and almost entirely uncritical coverage to the Government's determination to rebalance the criminal justice system 'in favour of  victims'. In particular it carried a long, self-serving comment piece by Tony Blair. Dissent from the government's view by those who point out that the proposed 'reforms' will , if enacted, almost inevitably lead to more miscarriages of justice, was relegated to the online edition of the paper. Only there do we discover a joint statement by Liberty, Legal Action Group, the Criminal Bar Association and The Bar Council opposing the government reforms. Only there do we find an excellent article about miscarriages of justice by postgraduate researcher Michael Naughton, which was put online in July, but which was never published in the main print edition of the newspaper. 

'A new genre of miscarriages of justice'

On Thursday 31 October a long campaign, fought by hundreds of former care workers and their supporters to expose what has been described as 'the gravest series of  miscarriages of justice in British legal history', was finally vindicated by a House of Commons report.

After conducting a three-month inquiry, in which it took oral and written evidence from many individuals and organisations, the Home Affairs Select Committee has concluded that what it calls 'a new genre of miscarriages of justice' has arisen from 'the over-enthusiastic pursuit' of allegations of abuse relating to children's homes. 'I am in no doubt,' said the Chairman of the Committee, Chris Mullin, 'that a number of innocent people have been convicted and that many other innocent people, who have not been convicted, have had their lives ruined.' During the inquiry it was suggested by witnesses that as many as a hundred former care workers had been wrongly convicted as direct result of police trawling operations and the loop-holes in the laws of evidence which these exploited.

The Committee's strong report, which robustly questions many received views, recommends a series of safeguards to protect people who are investigated during the course of trawling operations. It calls for the compulsory audio or video recording of police interviews with alleged victims, anonymity for the accused and wider powers for the Criminal Cases Review Commission to enable alleged miscarriages of justice to be reviewed. In a vital section of its report which will be
widely welcomed by the wrongly accused (though it may be opposed by others) it calls for the rules on 'similar fact evidence' to be tightened. 

One of the principal difficulties faced by those accused during trawling operations is that over the last ten years, in a series of ill-considered judgments, the House of Lords has progressively removed restrictions on the admission of dangerous and highly prejudicial evidence. As a result innocent defendants in trawling cases frequently find themselves facing large numbers of horrific sexual allegations made by as many as ten or even twenty complainants, all of which are false. No jury can overcome the sheer emotional power of this evidence without climbing a mountain of prejudice and few juries succeed in the attempt. It is principally because of the relaxation of the rules of evidence in this respect that increasing numbers of innocent care workers have been convicted and given long prison sentences.  

In a radical proposal, which has far-reaching implications, the Home Affairs Committee has now accepted the view that the law on similar fact evidence should be reformed. It has recommended to the Home Office that multiple allegations made by different complainants should not be admitted into a trial before a jury unless there are 'striking similarities' which justify their being heard together. This would restore the cautious approach adopted by the House of Lords in 1975 in the case of Boardman and undo the dangerous relaxation of the evidence rules which was introduced in 1991.  What makes the Home Affairs Comittee recommendation even more important is that has simultaneously urged that the presumption favouring severance in sexual abuse cases should be restored. In other words, where there are no striking similarities between allegations these should be 'severed' and heard in separate trials in order to avoid prejudicing juries.

In a passage of the report which will be welcomed by those innocent people who have already been convicted, the Committee acknowledges that 'many of these recommendations are simply 'closing the door after the horse has bolted.' It is, says the Committee, 'all the more important, therefore, that the Criminal Cases Review Commission and the appeal court take a robust approach to the review of suspected wrongful convictions.'

For the full Home Affairs Comittee press release, click
here.  Various stories have appeared about the report including those of John Carvel in the Guardian, Philip Johnston in the Daily Telegraph and John Silverman on the BBC website.

The
full report, 'The Conduct of Investigations into Past Cases of Abuse in Children's Homes', is now available online. The online version includes a selection of the written submissions and full transcripts of the oral evidence, including the evidence given by the following witnesses: falsely accused teachers/care workers (Rory O'Brien, Robin Reeves, Phil Fiddler and Phil Craig), defence solicitors (scroll down page to Neil O'May, Chris Saltrese and Linzi McDonald), personal injury compensation solicitors (including the remarkable evidence of Peter Garsden), 'experts' (Andrew Parker, Gisli Gudjonsson, Janet Boakes, Bill Thompson), senior police officers (including Terence Grange and Gareth Tinnuche), journalists/authors (David Rose, Richard Webster and Bob Woffinden) and the evidence of Claire Curtis-Thomas MP.

MPs speak out against trawling

On Wednesday 16 October, Claire Curtis-Thomas, the Member of Parliament for Crosby, won an adjournment debate in the House of Commons on an issue in which she has campaigned courageously and tenaciously over the last three years - police trawling operations. The full Hansard report of her speech and of the ensuing debate includes the very powerful contribution made by Edward Garnier, a QC who is Conservative Member of Parliament for Harborough, and a former shadow Attorney General.

In his speech he related how two of his constituents, a man and a woman who were both former care workers, were arrested by the Leicestershire police during the course of Operation Magnolia. They were then 'put in police cells, questioned and given the firm impression by the police that they were guilty of heinous crimes':

'They were not told who their alleged victims were and were not given sufficient detail to enable them to refute the allegations coherently. Furthermore, they were
both summarily suspended by their employers, and it was only earlier this year that they were both, almost casually, informed by the police that they were not to be charged or prosecuted, and that they no longer needed to answer to police bail. There was, they were told, insufficient evidence for their cases to proceed.

'Of course, by then the damage had been done. Those people had become pariahs. For more than 18 months they were unable to go to work, to explain to their friends and families why they were not going to work, to socialise and to go about their daily lives as they had in the past. They were prisoners in their own homes, terrified that the day would soon come when they would again be summoned by the police to be interviewed, and on that occasion charged and imprisoned on remand while the investigations against them were slowly pursued.

'One of them became so traumatised by the experience that he became suicidal and is still under the care of a psychiatrist. The other had to receive professional counselling for the stress she has endured. Both of them have had their faith in British justice and in the police undermined, if not totally destroyed. Both are incapable of offering their employers, the social services department, and their line managers the respect that they once had for the institution and for the people managing it.

'. . . My two constituents are like priests who have lost their faith. They are ruined people contemplating ruined lives and a future without hope.'

These two constituents, Edward Garnier said, had provided him with stark and immediate examples of the problem highlighted by Claire Curtis-Thomas. He went on to offer a powerful and succinct view of the harm which is currently being done by police trawling:
It is interesting that Operation Magnolia took place in Leicestershire, where the effect of the Beck investigation is still felt. It might be noted, however, that the view expressed by Edward Garnier about Mark D'Arcy and Paul Gosling's account of the Beck case in their 1998 book Abuse of Trust is very different from the view I expressed in my
TLS review of the same book.

The full Hansard record of the recent House of Commons debate makes for interesting reading. But it also clearly demonstrates the reluctance of the present government to face up to the problem. The complaint made by Home Office minister John Denham that he had not been given details of any case where people had been induced to give evidence by the offer of compensation is particularly odd. One case where compensation was clearly a motive was that involving the former Southampton football manager David Jones. Another was described by Claire Curtis-Thomas herself in the course of her speech, when she referred to a  remarkable incident where one complainant actually confessed in the witness box that his evidence was 'a pack of lies' which he had made up in order to get compsensation.

If, however, John Denham was seeking an example where there is evidence that the police themselves persuaded a witness to make false allegations by explicitly referring to compensation, he is asking for something which is indeed difficult to supply. For obvious reasons most evidence of such offers comes from people  who declined them and therefore did not go into the witness box to make false allegations.
         

It remains to be seen whether Denham will continue to stonewall in this manner when Home Affairs Select Commitee produce their report on trawling. The report is now expected on 31 October.

Richard Webster, 2002

www.richardwebster.net

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