Submitted by Susan Wiseman (CA 69)
I became aware of the problem of false allegations and wrongful convictions when an old friend was sentenced to eight years' imprisonment on the basis of retrospective allegations from two convicted criminals, both claiming compensation. Apart from his having worked in the establishment at the same time as they lived there, no evidence was produced to support these allegations. It later became clear that this was not an isolated instance but a systematic method of obtaining convictions. I have since attended several trials and been appalled at what I have seen.
I am a retired social worker with a background in residential carefortunately not child care. However, I believe that my experience affords me an understanding of the ethos of residential care and enables me to make a reasonably well informed assessment of the likelihood of the accused person being able to commit the alleged offences, even had they wished to.
1. Do police methods of trawling for evidence involve a disproportionate use of resources and produce unreliable evidence for prosecution?
The danger of false allegations of abuse when such allegations are invited retrospectively from people of disturbed/criminal backgrounds is self evident. False allegations may be made purely in the hope of reward, mistakenly or because a suggestible person, interviewed on a number of occasions by a police officer or social worker who is actively seeking allegations, eventually makes allegations, whether at this point believing them to be true or knowing them to be untrue. The accused is usually prosecuted on basis of the unsupported allegations of two or more complainants.
There is a requirement for a high level of skill and integrity among those police and social workers involved in this very sensitive area. Not only do they seek the allegations, they then given them validity when appearing in Court. The jury must decide between numerous allegations of abuse from people of dubious character and the denials of an individual of unimpeachable character. They have to believe someone. It is reasonable to suppose that their decision is, in large part, based on the "expert" opinion of the police and social workers involved in the investigation.
However, empirical evidence demonstrates that those seeking allegations of abuse lack the ability to distinguish between truth and fiction. They cannot identify who is, or is not, an abuser or who has, or has not been abused.
This frightening inadequacy must be highlighted and addressed, both for the sake of those who have indeed been abused and those who have been falsely accused of abuse.
There are also indications that some investigators identify so closely with the accusers that their impartiality is compromised. For example, a number of witnesses saw police in the Magistrates Court prompting accusers. The victim of the allegations has complained to the Police Complaints Authority who have declined to address this matter until after his trial! How fair can that trial be? Has anything else happened that was not, by chance, seen in Court?
However, I suspect that we are fast reaching a stage where investigating teams will be able to claim that they have not "trawled" for allegationsthey will not need to do so. In fact they, and others on their behalf, have advertised. I attended Court during a case in which the police admitted advertising. They also sent out letters (claimed not to remember how many) naming the person who, they agreed, they had targeted.
When a person is charged their name will probably be published in the local media. This not only puts them and their family in danger of vigilante action, it serves to provide prospective accusers with a name around which to build an obscene storyeffectively trawling. If convicted, the judge's comments are unhelpful, frequently providing salacious newspaper headlines and creating the impression that abuse is widespread, thus inevitably influencing potential jurors and possibly attracting further complainants.
2. Should there be a time limitin terms of numbers of years since the alleged offence took placeon prosecution of cases of child abuse?
Records are lost, witnesses become frail or die, memories fade, there is rarely a date relating to the allegation(s) which can enable the victim of false allegations to seek an alibi. S/he scrabbles around trying to find anything which might help clear her/his name. Sometimes they are lucky, sometimes they just go to prison. The lapse in time renders it impossible for a falsely accused person to have a fair trial.
If one has, for example, worked in a care home/school for six months which coincide with the dates the accuser lived there, it is all but impossible to demonstrate that nothing untoward occurred. There may indeed have been opportunity but that does not mean that abuse took place. The burden of proof is reversed and any evidence that might have helped may well have disappeared over the years.
4. Is there a risk that the advertisements of prospective awards of compensation in child abuse cases encourages people to come forward with fabricated allegations?
It should be pointed out that financial compensation is not the only benefit to be gained from fabricating allegations. Those who have been wrongly convicted report that the availability of compensation in its various forms is widely known amongst prisoners.
Some solicitors advertise directly, "no win, no fee". Worryingly, I am told that one firm is advertising in the prisoner's magazine Inside Times.
Charges faced by the accuser can be reduced in severity or dropped.
Some accusers believe that their chances of parole will be increased.
To conclude, the methods of investigating retrospective allegations have, I believe, led to widespread wrongful convictions and untold misery for the victims of these miscarriages and their families. The police and judicial system have been brought into disrepute. No one is safe in a country where this can be allowed to happen.
34 There follow a few examples. Numerous others can be provided R v Strettle, Warrington, 2000. Charged with serious sexual abuse in a camper van under a bridge. Mr Strettle's vehicle was several inches too high to fit under the bridge. R v Shalders, Bradford, 2001: accused of serious sexual abuse from an accuser who claimed to have spent the weekend in the establishment. He had been there for approximately two hours, for assessment. Mr Shalders was charged. R v Lucy, Warrington, 2001. Charged with physical assault, resulting in teeth being knocked out. The accuser's dentist confirmed that his teeth had fallen out through neglect. R v Jolley, Liverpool, 2001. Charged with serious sexual assaults on young woman. The dates of allegations on the initial statement taken by the investigating team covered a period some months after he had left the home. The typed version, which she signed, omitted these dates. Back
35 Oral Committal R v Esmat, Liverpool Magistrates Court, 2001. Back
36 R v Shalders, Bradford, 2001. Back
37 R v Strettle, Warrington, 2000. Back
38 R v Shalders, Bradford, 2001. The Solicitors for two accusers, before trial, contacted the Parole Board. Back