Allegations of sex offences have featured in the news almost without pause for the last few years. I actually thought about whether to write this blog as it is such a sensitive topic, however we should not be afraid to discuss sensitive topics I suppose. For a number of years I have specialised in defending people accused of sex offences. As such perhaps I have some insight and so will share my thoughts.
Allegations of sexual offences have been brought against politicians, TV stars, musicians, producers, comedians and more – I have been involved of several of these cases. Though some were more recent complaints, many were historic in nature; sometimes dating back years or even decades.
I have also defended numerous lesser known cases. Most recently I acted for a headmaster who was faced with allegations by two men who were pupils at his school 30 years earlier. Both men had extensive criminal records with numerous convictions for dishonesty. One of the men, in my view the instigator, saw an advert in a prison newspaper offering to sue Local Authorities on behalf of abuse victims.
Now – let me be clear. If someone has been injured, they are entitled to compensation – this is true in a car accident and it is just as true where the injury caused was abuse. A key difference is that the usual time limit of 3 years from the date of injury to bring a claim does not apply in practice in abuse cases.
If a Local Authority, football club, school or some other institution failed in their duty of care and abuse occurred as a result, then they are liable and so they should be.
However, mix the ability to claim for compensation with for example in one case I dealt with, a man who admitted under cross examination that he would do anything for money and you have a potentially toxic combination. The lawyers whose advert he saw advised that the claim would be stronger if there was a criminal conviction and so the complainant contacted the police and my client found himself facing extremely serious allegations.
If convicted I expect a sentence in double figures would have been passed. I have no doubt that his family, who sat through every day of the trial would have stood by him, yet his life would have been ruined.
Defending these cases is difficult. Finding witnesses from decades ago is painstaking. Plans of original buildings, towns change, businesses close, schools close, memories fade, false memories arise (I must remember to do a blog on false memory). If a client has resources then they have an advantage as private investigators can be deployed – I have used investigators to great effect in exposing significant weaknesses in prosecutions. Sadly clients without such resources are required to rely on the police carrying out a thorough and fair investigation.
Bear in mind that historic allegations are usually lacking supporting evidence – no CCTV, no phone records, no text messages. Often they become one word against another.
In this case we were fortunate – the school had not changed much and one complainant was found to be lying about the location of where he said the abuse had occurred. We had visited the school and videoed the places he claimed the abuse occurred. It simply could not have happened where he said. Allowing these cases to come down to nothing more than one word against another can be a big gamble.
I was delighted with the acquittal. It was the right verdict.
The awful thing with sex cases is this – even where the accused has not done it, the stigma does not go. Comments will be made; no smoke without fire, well I still wouldn’t let him near my kids. Even when there is an acquittal, as my client and friend Nigel Evans MP said following his acquittal “there are no winners”.
Sex cases are different to any other type of criminal case. You see, we can understand what may drive someone to steal, to commit fraud, to use violence, even to kill; yet no right minded person can understand what could drive a person to rape and above all a child.
This is why convicted paedophiles, rapist and sex offenders are kept separate in prisons. In the Strageways riots in 1990, rioting prisoners went straight for those convicted of sex offences and one remand prisoner, Derek White, was beaten to death.
Yet in my experience, the highest probability that a person may be innocent is in cases where the allegation is of a sexual nature – where it is one word against another.
For the Defendant it starts with a knock at the door from police officers and a request that they go to the station or out of fairness to a suspect and to their family, the police are usually minded to call and ask the suspect to attend at the station at an arranged time. Either way, whether a knock or a call, it is hard to imagine what must go through somebody’s head at that moment.
At the police station the police will sometimes arrest the suspect or sometimes take a more open approach and treat the individual as a volunteer. There is a key difference; a volunteer can leave at any time, somebody under arrest cannot. Arrest gives the police certain powers of search, to put questions in interview and to require the suspect to return to answer bail at the police station at a later date. It also allows the collection of DNA and fingerprints.
That being said, they will want to interview volunteers and if a volunteer refuses and walks out, then it is likely the police may simply arrest if they consider they have enough evidence.
Prior to the interview the solicitor is given a short overview of the allegation but the police will hold back a lot. They are unlikely to show most of their cards. I always like to ask questions of the police at this stage. You can always tell when you hit a raw nerve with a question and that is enough to think ‘right, they have a statement about this or some supporting evidence and are going to produce it in the interview’.
The next stage is key, the consultation with your solicitor. This should never be rushed, no matter how much the Police try. I always test my clients, press them, point out if their account sounds weak on any points. It is at this stage that a critical decision is made to answer questions in interview or to make no comment. If charged, this decision will reverberate through the rest of the case. I have another podcast on police station procedure which covers the police caution and the right to silence so I am not going to go over it here.
Needless to say, for a suspect who has not committed the offence he is about to be questioned for, this is a terrifying ordeal. I have say in enough consultations to know this. I remember one man throwing up in a bin and another, a foster carer, sobbing so much he couldn’t even get the words out to insist to me that the allegations were totally untrue.
The interview will equally be traumatic. It is my experience that the police are not aggressive in these interviews but want to test the account they are given and to hear the suspect’s case. Nevertheless it is certainly not a pleasant experience.
And then, you are released. Either the Police say they will be in contact if you were there on a voluntary basis or you are released on bail. There may be conditions attached to bail; usually not to be in contact with people under a certain age and certainly not to seek to contact witnesses. In historic cases it is very rare that bail will be refused.
So imagine having to go home and tell your children that you cannot be with your grandchildren unless supervised for example. Not easy. I have seen families split where one side supports the suspect and another does not.
Being on bail is extremely stressful. It is the unknown; ‘will I be charged?’, ‘did they believe me?’. Maybe you need to tell work. How do you tell loved ones?
And then if you are charged – the indignity of having to attend at the Magistrates’ Court while charges are put, hoping there are no press in Court on a slow news day looking for something smutty or salacious, a figure to hate. At least then we should get the full case (though we may need to argue for extras such as school or social services records). At least we can sit together and read the statements of the accusers and look for inconsistencies, prepare lines of investigation. We can decide which barrister is going to be best suited in Court.
The trial eventually comes along – often many months or even over a year or more since the knock at the door. I wish I could tell clients not to worry and we will win. I cannot. We cannot predict how prosecution witnesses will perform, or indeed the defendant. All I am ever able to promise is that the case will be properly prepared. It is good to see when this pays off. I remember one accuser accepting that he had tried to sell his story to a couple of newspapers – he said it was just a joke….maybe we don’t share a sense of humour….people find different things funny – I can’t understand how anyone laughs at Jo Brand or Alexi Sayle…..the Jury didn’t think it was a joke.
Waiting for the verdict is without doubt an extremely intense time for a defendant. The waiting, for hours or days for that moment when the foreperson will say one word or two and in that second set you free or condemn you. I have never failed to feel nerves when awaiting a verdict so heaven knows how a defendant must feel. I imagine, unless you have been through it, you can’t come close to understanding it.
For those acquitted, it is not the end. Not everybody will be prepared to accept the findings of the jury. It may have been in the papers, their children may have been bullied. After one case, I was quoted a lot in the press for my view that suspects in sex cases should be granted anonymity at least until charge and possibly until conviction. Paul Gambaccini, an innocent celebrity who was dragged through months and months of a personal nightmare quoted me on this in his book Love. Nigel Evans MP and Cliff Richards are campaigning for a change in the law to support anonymity until charge. Nigel was found not guilty of eight charges and Cliff Richards was extensively investigated until no charges were brought.
Complainants are granted anonymity for life. I support this. It is critical that victims of sex offences come forwards, are supported and do not need to fear exposure in the press. Yet where unscrupulous individuals make a criminal complaint for attention, money or revenge, then it is the suspect who is the true victim and have no protection of anonymity.
It has been put to me that allowing suspects to be named may encourage victims to come forwards. I understand the argument but reject it. There are other ways to encourage victims to come forward. It should not simply be because other have – false complainants can too easily jump on an a bandwagon. Indeed it may actually encourage people to come forwards – it may be that naming of suspects in the press may put off true victims as they may calculate that if the suspect is known, they can be easily identified.
If anyone reading this is a victim of a sex offence, please do get assistance – victimsupport.org.uk is a great place to start, they can offer guidance and have links with specialist police. The Police are very good in dealing with complaints; they use specially trained officer and are very supportive.
If you have been falsely accused, then feel free to contact me. Even if I am unable to assist personally, then I will point you in the right direction.
I hate quoting Shakespeare for several reasons – 1. I couldn’t stand reading him at school and haven’t bothered since 2. it makes it sound like I am trying to be clever. There is one quote of his however in the Merchant of Venice when Portia says “that in the course of justice none of us should see salvation” I think that is quite appropriate in cases like this.
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