by Jonathan Houghton of Abney Garsden McDonald (as appeared in the ACAL Newsletter in February 2002)
On 23rd October 2001 Malcolm Johnson (Steel & Shamash), John Robbins (formerly Operation Care, now AGM), and myself, attended a meeting at the House of Commons with Clare Curtis-Thomas, the MP for Crosby. Baroness Williams of Crosby (formerly Shirley Williams) was also supposed to be attendance but unfortunately she was not able to be present.
ACAL had contacted Ms Clare Curtis-Thomas with a view to arranging a meeting as she has developed an interest in child abuse matters.
Ms Curtis-Thomas comes from an engineering and academic background. The reasons for her interest in child abuse matters is therefore not immediately apparent, although it probably lies in the conviction of two of her constituents who worked at St Georges at Freshfields, near Formby, Merseyside. Both men were convicted of numerous offences of serious sexual abuse on children and sentenced to a total of 17 years’ imprisonment. They both continue to stress their innocence and are believed to have sought the assistance of their MP. It is also believed that both individuals have the support of FACT (Falsely Accused Carers and Teachers), a well organised campaign group set up in the Merseyside area. It is likely that FACT have lobbied her.
Ms Curtis-Thomas is advocating a change in the law as to how child abuse matters are investigated by the police. She would like the matter considered and debated in full with a view to all interviews with alleged child abuse complainants to be tape-recorded (and possibly video recorded) and that evidence should be made available to the Defendant in a criminal case. She has reached this opinion because she has received allegations of inducements being made to individuals to make a complaint (e.g. if you make a complaint you will get compensation). ACAL would have liked to have seen evidence of this, but on this occasion did not do so.
John Robbins responded to this suggestion that it was his policy, as officer in charge of Operation Care, that no members of his team were allowed to mention compensation at all. Indeed, from a practical point of view, this policy is both logical and sensible, as to do otherwise would undermine the prosecution case as the Defendant’s Counsel would certainly raise this issue in cross examination.
In principle we did not object to such a course of action, although we stated that it could well hinder the Defendant as it would show how upset the complainant was at the time he was making his statement about the abuse, something which is not always apparent on a paper statement.
We did, however, have a number of concerns. John Robbins was firstly concerned about the cost implications to the police. Additionally, there was the risk that it would lead to fewer people talking about the abuse itself. It is often very difficult to get them to talk anyway, but if complainants were going to be tape-recorded or video recorded this may put them off entirely. Clearly this would not be in the interests of justice, as potentially it would lead to fewer victims coming forward and a likelihood that abusers would be less likely to be taken to Court. The abusers would therefore be free to continue to abuse. It was also felt that the concerns of Clare Curtis-Thomas would not necessarily be solved as a result of taking this course of action. The Defendant’s counsel would then argue that maybe an inducement was offered on the way to the police station, or prior to the interview, etc. Additionally such allegations are frequently brought up in criminal trials and the jury is invited to consider whether complainants are Iying to obtain compensation as many Defendants would try to make us believe. The very nature of the change recommended also implies that many complainants are dishonest. For example, why should the law be changed in relation to individuals making allegations of child abuse but not in relation to other crimes such as rape?
We believe that ACAL gave a very good account of itself. We provided Ms Curtis-Thomas with details of ACAL’s history and aims, together with information in relation to the difficulties involved in pursuing both a civil action and CICA claim. It would appear that Ms Curtis-Thomas was of the opinion, or had been led to believe that, as soon as there was a conviction, compensation became an automatic right. We were pleased to set the record straight and detail some of the many hurdles that need to be overcome and reasons why claims (both civil and CICA) may fail. She was unaware of many of the provisions in the CICA scheme and did not realise that the CICA could refuse to make an award on the basis of criminal convictions. We have since provided her with a copy of the CICA scheme and details of some of the difficulties that may arise. We were also keen to point out that whilst it helps both the civil and CICA claim, a conviction was not necessary for compensation to be obtained. John Robbins also pointed out that when he left Operation Care in 2000, only approximately 33% of the adults who had made complaints about abuse in their childhood were pursuing claims for compensation. If, as some pressure groups suggest, individuals are only making complaints to the police to obtain compensation, then what is the motive for the two thirds of individuals who made complaints to Operation Care but are not pursuing claims?
Overall, the meeting was interesting and amicable. If Ms Curtis-Thomas suggestions progress then the next step will be for it to be considered by a Select Committee. It was stated at the meeting that ACAL would be invited to provide its views to that Select Committee at that stage.
Jonathan Houghton is a solicitor with Abney Garsden McDonald specialising in individual child abuse cases.