Over the last 23 years of acting for the child abuse victims, which is an emotional subject by definition, I have seen the pendulum swing in their favour and beyond, then against them at least twice. Whilst it is important to hear both sides of the argument, it is also essential to protect the rights of the vulnerable because they rarely have the strength to stand up for themselves.
Matthew Parris’s article “This grotesque racket in sex abuse claims” appears to be the down side of the pendulum, and assumes that the Police who investigate abuse are either naïve, or solicitors, by the nature of their marketing practises, are encouraging fantasists to make false claims.
Should We Believe Victims?
Allegations of child abuse have remained hidden undetected for centuries seen as so shameful that they have often been met by an unbelieving police force, until the recent past. On all too many occasions a child has tried to complain when young, been disbelieved by an adult whose safeguarding practises have been less than acceptable, then swept under the carpet for many years.
When we ask our clients why they have not come forward with their complaint for so many years, the often repeated response is “I thought no one would believe me after all this time”, or “I tried to complain at the time and was called a liar”, or “I was threatened by my abuser that no one would believe me if I did come forward.”
It appears now that the police force should not necessarily “believe” what victims say – at least according to the report of Sir Richard Henriques, and should be more rigorous in the way in which they treat uncorroborated allegations of non-recent abuse. Fortunately, the national police guidelines disagree with Sir Richard and follow the “belief system”, which is likely to create more trust from a distrustful victim of abuse.
Trial By Media?
The police are tasked to listen to complaints of abuse, investigate them, then pass the evidence to the Crown Prosecution Service for a decision on whether there should be a prosecution or not. Often, after a long investigation, no criminal charges result. That does not mean that the allegations are not true, or that the victim is telling lies. It simply means that there is not enough evidence to pass the high prosecution hurdle of proof “beyond reasonable doubt”.
When the abuser does not face charges, it is sometimes concluded that this must mean that the victim is a fantasist, a liar, or the allegations are untrue. The alleged abuser often claims that their name has been cleared and that they are innocent.
The conclusion drawn by the public from the media can be that the victim is telling untruths and the abuser is the victim of false allegations. The reality can be that the case has not proceeded because the victim cannot face the pressure of a media onslaught, amongst many other complex reasons.
Whilst a sex offender can be found “guilty” of abuse and sentenced, our legal system is unable to bring a verdict of “innocent”. If the person in the dock is found “not guilty” of the crime, it does not mean they are innocent, it just means that there was insufficient evidence to convict him and the Crown failed to prove their case “beyond reasonable doubt”.
“The Compensation Culture” Or Not
Lawyers are easy targets for those that face allegations of abuse. The assumption is that if the alleged abuser asserts their innocence that the lawyer’s client must be misleading them. They face the same allegations as the police for believing allegations of abuse which they are told by their clients, and advertising for claims.
The question is “does marketing which enables the client to work out how much compensation they are likely to get promote false allegations?” and this is the suggested implication of the Parris article. The answer to this is that the solicitors are simply explaining facts and figures that are available to the public on the website of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority and the Judicial Studies Board Guidelines. They are simply providing an easy to access method of summarising the information on their own website. It is a module used by general personal injury claims and helps the victim to understand their rights.
Advertising for claims does not equal an incentive for false allegations because any enquiry we receive has to pass the following checks and balances before we will investigate:
- There must be a good argument to pass the time delay test (any claim to be brought through the civil courts after the age of 21 is legally out of time subject to discretion).
- There must be some good corroborative evidence from supportive witnesses.
- A prior criminal conviction is helpful if not essential.
- Our expert psychiatrist must attribute significant harm to the abuse committed as opposed to other life events.
- Ultimately, if the claim is defended, as they often are, the judgment of civil court.
ACAL (Association of Child Abuse Lawyers), of which I am President and one of the founder members, requires all of our members to adhere to a code of conduct.Any member of the Association who is a solicitor/legal executive/barrister undertakes the following:-
- That he/she is fully aware of and will always seek to minimise the potential impact of legal advice/proceedings on a client who is a survivor of abuse.
- To ensure that as far as reasonably practicable every avenue of investigation in a case is considered and/or explored.
- To be prepared to pursue cases which may break legal boundaries and establish new legal precedents.
- To ensure that he/she is fully acquainted with the latest developments in the law relating to abuse.
These aims ensure that the victim of abuse gets the best possible form of care by his lawyer and ensures access to justice. It does not promote rejection and suspicion of clients, because that would not be considered good practise.
What Is A Victim Of Abuse Like?
To read the Parris article one would assume that victims of abuse are all greedy monetary motivated chancers who will stop at nothing to lie for an award of compensation. So what are our clients really like? Most of our clients are:
- Depressed and suffering from various mental health disorders of varying types.
- Have very low self-esteem and consider themselves unworthy of human attention from the same or the opposite sex.
- Have often tried to smother their daytime flashbacks and night terrors with alcohol, drugs, and/or other stimulants.
- Unable to trust people in authority leading to an inability to work.
- They seek justice not money and often give away any compensation they get to family, whose lives they maintain have been affected by their behaviour caused by the abuse.
- They often find the receipt of money for sexual favours given in an abusive relationship in childhood offensive, and undeserving.
I believe that victims of abuse all over the country will be enraged to read the arguments set out in the article. There is always room for the other side of the argument, particularly in a society of free speech. I have written this article in an effort to balance the argument.