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 Trawling nets the innocent
 

MORE THAN THREE YEARS ago, in July 1999, the New Statesman  exposed the scandal of police 'trawling' to investigate alleged sexual abuse. Instead of waiting for victims to come forward and make complaints, we reported that the police are now setting set out to find allegations by contacting as many former residents of care homes as they can. 
 

Now, the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, after a three-month inquiry, has concluded that such trawling operations have led to 'a new genre of miscarriages of justice'.

The dangers of trawling were summed up for the Committee by one former resident who had been interviewed by the South Wales Police. ‘I felt that I was being bullied by the police into making a complaint,’ he said. ‘I was horrified when I was asked during the interview, ‘Did Mr B touch you up? Did he touch your penis? Other people have complained that he did.’ He said the police had pointed out to him ‘that other former residents would be receiving tens of thousands of pounds in compensation.’

 

This witness resisted the temptation to make a false allegation. Other witnesses do not. ‘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 a solicitor that more than a hundred former care workers had been wrongly convicted as a result of trawling operations.

The report calls for the compulsory audio or video recording of police interviews with alleged victims and anonymity for the accused. Crucially, it also calls for the rules on ‘similar fact evidence’ to be tightened so that defendants will be less likely to find themselves in the impossibly prejudicial situation of having to face, in a single trial, large numbers of horrific sexual allegations all of which may be false.

The importance of this recommendation, and of the Committee’s entire report, cannot be overstated. It comes at a time when the government, having
intensified the moral panic surrounding crime in general and paedophilia in particular for its own populist ends, faces a grave danger. If it does not now change course, it will be swept helplessly, in the tide of hysteria it has itself helped to create, towards judicial disaster.  

 

In a single sentence Tony Blair himself has already turned traditional ideas of justice upside down by saying, in a speech earlier this year, that the ‘biggest miscarriage of justice in today’s system is when the guilty walk away unpunished’. 
 

In its pursuit of convictions at all costs the government has proposed, in its White Paper, Justice for all, that restrictions on the admission of prejudicial similar fact evidence (such as details of previous convictions) should be relaxed still further.

 

What it seems not to have recognised is that the clamour to obtain convictions by removing safeguards against injustice is not new. It has been going on for the best part of a century and a series of legal ‘reforms’ has permitted the admission of evidence which is both unreliable and massively prejudicial. This has already led to a perversion of justice on a scale which would once have been unimaginable.

 

By implicitly recognising this, and by putting forward recommendations which point in exactly the opposite direction from those indicated in the White Paper, Chris Mullin and the Home Affairs Committee have offered compelling reasons for the government to re-think.  

 

It is vital that the Home Office, which has seemed intent on steering towards the rocks of an even greater judicial disaster, recognises this and takes the opportunity created by this new report to change course. Members of Parliament from all three parties should encourage it to do so.

 

A shorter version of this article appeared in the New Statesman on 8 November 2002.

 

 

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© Richard Webster, 2002

www.richardwebster.net

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