Its not been the best couple of weeks for justice for those falsely accused or seeking to demonstrate their convictions are false . We have had the whole episode of the victim being labelled predatory and then there was the bitter news to the Innocence Project that all of its hard work in the case of Simon Hall came to nothing as he had admitted his guilt . The pressure has been so great that it has even caused the Lord Chief Justice to respond to the Home Affairs Select Committee about special arrangements for Child Abuse Judges even though the Judiciary have responsibly had arrangements for handling such cases in place for many years .
Of course all of this follows quickly on the heels of the ongoing moral panic about Child Abuse created in the aftermath of the Savile Scandal and the frenzy continues to gather considerable pace . The result is we are seeing the loss of perspective in all quarters and an agenda for our criminal justice system set now by the media and political spin . Nothing after all sells newspapers or get votes like a good criminal justice crisis or scandal .
For example if we look at the whole scandal over the predatory remarks issue this has placed us in very difficult territory as we are now allowing cases in our system to be deconstructed and criticised by the media and if this is the situation we are in now heaven help us when we get “Court TV ” .
Of course most people when they heard the report of what Counsel had said would have been shocked , no right thinking person would like to think of any victim of a sexual offence being blamed for it , but its necessary to scratch a little below the surface of the headlines to get the true picture .
The truth of this matter is that we are not the advocates , the Judge or the witnesses in the particular case that the media want so readily take apart . Was the terminology used by Prosecuting Counsel and the Judge inappropriate ? Well the simple answer is that we do not know because we do not have the finer detail of the case .
It was probably not the best wording to use but then its difficult sometimes in the atmosphere of the Court to deliver exactly what you mean to say .
It is important to appreciate that there are cases were a complainants conduct is such as to raise serious concerns , cases in which the complainant might be regarded by witnesses ( including the defendant ) as a major contributor to the chain of events which led to the offences and to ignore that reality causes more harm than good . That does not mean that they should be treated any differently to any other victim or that we should fail to understand that such conduct may arise because of the problems and experiences they have suffered in their lives . Victims in this situation should be able to rely upon an adult not to take advantage no matter how they have behaved .
It goes without saying that any convicted defendant who takes advantage of such behaviour should generally not expect sympathy from the Court , however that does not mean such conduct should not be considered .
The whole purpose to a sentencing exercise is to consider all of the evidence in the round “warts and all ” . So whatever our personal views of the terminology used we need to approach the issue with great care .
We will soon have our answer as to whether the comments were inappropriate and the sentence correct but the deeper questions this case raises may not generate answers so quickly .
No doubt we can expect some greater judicial comment on the issue if as expected the Attorney General refers the case due to its sentence to the Court of Appeal .
What of the Judiciary’s response to the current panic . This again should come as no surprise . The Judiciary ( with some notable exceptions ) are generally reactive to society, put another way , the Judiciary responds to the mood of society or what it perceives the mood to be . As a result during the last moral panic over child abuse cases in the 1990’s the Judiciary played its judicial part in the convictions of many carers and teachers . It was only in 2002 following the Home Affairs Select Committee describing such convictions as a “new genre of miscarriage ” that the Court started a temporary diversion reacting to those concerns and with it a spate of cases such as Mayberry , Rigby Willliams , Lawson , Sheikh , Burke and Joynson amongst others quashing those convictions . The Court recognised the dangers and need for careful scrutiny . It had moved with society and the concerns that were then arising over false allegations but of course not before long the pendulum was swinging back again .
The lessons learnt in all of those cases are now in danger of being forgotten . We have had a deluge of reporting of new Historical Allegations of Abuse . We would be glad about this if we knew they could all be true but the truth is they will not be . As a result we will be exposing carers and teachers together with ordinary men and women to the risk of false allegations . In addition we have a whole new group to go at – “The Celebrity’s ” . This group hasn’t had the best start with Stuart Hall but there is at least an opportunity for some who may be falsely accused to demonstrate the falsehood of these allegations and the destructive nature of the situation we are in . We seem to have forgotten we have been down that road before you can find the names of past celebrity’s falsely accused by a simple google search ( we choose not to repeat their names ) .
There is little sign the Moral Panic will abate anytime soon and we will probably be once more in the hands of the Court of Appeal to show that it can take decisive action beyond media or parliamentary interference and ensure the lessons of the past built upon the background of great suffering are not lost again .
Finally for those fighting miscarriage and the Innocence Network of Universities which we strongly support , no one should be disheartened by the Simon Hall Case . The truth about all miscarriage cases is a simple one there will remain in the system a small amount of people who maintain their innocence but who are in fact guilty . They will do this for a variety of reasons not least human desperation of the situation they find themselves in . Thankfully it is not a common occurrence as it is clearly damaging to all those who each day sit in prison cells maintaining their innocence . The Innocence Project should be proud of its work on the case it can only take the claim of innocence at face value and investigate it . Bringing the case to an unsuccessful appeal probably hastened Mr Halls decision to make the admissions he then did .
The reality is we have to operate in a system in which some people do not tell the truth and that applies to everybody .
So back to where we started in this blog – we remain at a crossroads and we have been here before if we continue down the wrong road we will be back before another set of politicians and media in the next 20 years contemplating the terrible mistakes made and the people we sent to custody for no reason .