This article explains the author’s personal experience of giving evidence to the Home Affairs Select committee at the House of Commons on the conduct of investigations into past cases of abuse in children’s homes on 11th June 2002.
A visit to give evidence to the Home Affairs select committee was going to be an occasion to remember, when I would be treated with respect and my professional opinion sought on law reform in the area on alleged false allegations of child abuse in children’s home cases? Wrong. It was quite obvious that this was nothing more than a professional attack on my professional integrity. It was clear that the “other side” had briefed the committee to believe that I was simply another of those “greedy, ambulance chasing claims bandits” whose alleged sole purpose in life was to pursue totally spurious allegations of child abuse against the victims of injustice at the hands of a misguided and misled criminal justice system. I left the House of Commons on 16th May feeling angry, insulted, and misunderstood. If it were not for the support given to me by Frances Swaine from APIL who was giving evidence with me I probably would have walked out. Some of you may have seen the evidence broadcast on the Parliament channel
The committee’s press release said that the questions it was interested in were:-
Do police methods of ‘trawling’ for evidence involve a disproportionate use of resources and produce unreliable evidence for prosecution?
- Is the Crown Prosecution Service drawing a sensible line about which cases should be prosecuted?
- Should there be a time limit — in terms of number of years since the alleged offence took place — on prosecution of cases of child abuse?
- Is there a risk that the advertisement of prospective awards of compensation in child abuse cases encourages people to come forward with fabricated allegations?
- Is there a weakness in the current law on “similar fact” evidence?
It was only the fourth question that the committee were interested in. How it was possible to fill the hours of 11am and 1.30pm without a break with rigorous cross-examination, almost illustrates how many times the same question was repeated. The committee seemed most interested in trying to find evidence on my website (they had a complete print out of the site of which I had no notice or sight) of adverts for the huge compensation payouts victims could expect if they instructed me to make a claim. As there was no such evidence this task proved somewhat difficult. Still however they tried. A slanging match resulted as I told the committee that I had seen all of their websites, which were riddled with marketing hype. One of the MPs then hurriedly left as the heat was turned up.
I was asked countless times if I believed there were any false allegations of abuse. I said I had no evidence of false allegations since it was somewhat unlikely that a claimant would walk into my office and tell me that he wanted me to make up a story of abuse in a children’s home so that he/she could go on a world cruise with the proceeds. The process of compensation claims must be a black art to the honourable members of Parliament. I was quoted in the press as saying that I believed that there were no “blameless convicted abusers sitting in prison cells”. In other words there must be examples of multi witness prosecutions where perhaps not all the allegations are true and exaggerated compensation claims, but the checks and balances of the legal system are quite good enough. There was no need for Members of Parliament to meddle in the judicial system, particularly when they had been misled by a few hysterical journalists and the FACT (Falsely Accused Care Teachers) lobby, who consist mostly of convicted child abusers from care homes on Merseyside. The MP’s were offended that I simply did not accept at all the whole basis of the enquiry.
I was asked if ACAL (Association of Child Abuse Lawyers) were a professional organisation! They picked on the course we offer to survivors who are going through the judicial system. So damaging is the process psychologically that we offer a course to give them the tools for withstanding court proceedings and cross-examination. Bob Russell MP asked me for an assurance that at no time were witnesses primed on what to say in evidence. At this suggestion Frances Swaine and I nearly fell off our chairs in disbelief.
There then proceeded a line of questions, which went “But Mr Garsden more or less the whole of your business depends on child abuse compensation. Isn’t it in your interest to keep the claimants coming through the door?” It was suggested that apart from the website one of the ways I was doing this was by having an unhealthily close relationship with the police who were prosecuting the abusers. They insinuated that my employment of John Robbins, the ex Detective Superintendent in charge of Operation Care on Merseyside who was in charge of no fewer than 80 home investigations, as a travelling statement taker, simply proved the point. I found it hard to keep my temper. I reminded the committee that I had helped found 3 Charities (including ACAL) to help the disadvantaged and the abused, and last year recorded 750 hours of pro bono work for ACAL. Their insinuations, I said, were both discourteous and rude.
They tried to suggest that I had an interest in the outcome of the cases and asked if I worked on “No Win No Fee” agreements. They were obviously influenced by the preponderance of claim farming companies and lumped child abuse claims into the same arena, even though there is practically no advertising by any lawyer, perilously few “No Win No Fee”agreements, and no insurance companies who are prepared to cover adverse costs let alone group actions. I reminded the committee that we were completely indebted to the support we get from the Legal Services Commission.
“Why don’t you make claims to the CICA Mr Garsden?” said Mr Mullins MP. “But we do sir”, I replied. I then tried to explain how low are the awards generated by the tariff system and the outrageous discounts imposed for convictions caused largely by the very abuse, which is the substance of the complaint. It became clear that Mr Mullins was in favour of removing legal aid and ousting compensation from the civil court system by replacing it with the CICA. Howard Webber from the CICA, who was recalled to give evidence, was quite clear that the rule of criminal conviction discounts was here to stay and that their view was that those responsible for permitting the abuse (the home owners) ought to be called upon to pay damages and costs through the court system. If the home owners are not made to pay how will they learn from their past mistakes? It is the same argument that is used for clinical negligence about the Health Service.
I had read the evidence previously given and was aware of all the possible lines of cross-examination. I wrongly presumed that this would not turn into a witch hunt against the claimant lawyer who is always an easy target, in a similar way to the recent attacks on the authors of the Newcastle nursery enquiry. I rather thought that I would be treated in the same way as the previous solicitors who had acted for abusers, and whose views were sought on law reform. I went armed with at least 10 law reform suggestions, which were hurriedly included in one answer right at the end.
I am very much in favour of improving the protection afforded to the complainants in the abuse trials. They behave in many ways like child victims and should therefore be given the same protection. Such systems as video links from prison and elsewhere, convivial surroundings for prisoners waiting to give evidence, more protection from insulting, and psychologically damaging cross-examination by Defence Counsel, I am in favour of. Many witnesses in these types of cases are triggered into suicide attempts. The other side want tape-recorded evidence by complainants. They think it will reveal the liars. I think it will reinforce the veracity of the complaints. If any reforms are made they should not be isolated to these types of case but introduced to all matters involving abuse and psychological damage.
I told the committee that I was very worried about the message this enquiry was sending out to the thousands of genuine victims of child abuse in our community who find it hard enough to make disclosures without being labelled liars. The message coming from the expert psychologists was that they were witnessing examples of under disclosure not exaggeration or fabrication. Unfortunately the committee ignored my suggestion that they should call evidence from our medical team leader on the issue.
Finally and most importantly I reminded the committee that we were simply repeating the same mistakes from the past. What happened in these children’s homes all those years ago? Children tried to complain of abuse. They were disbelieved largely because it was thought that all children in care were not only bad but liars as well. They were intimidated into silence by devious, manipulative paedophiles who managed to maintain the secret for over 30 years.
© Peter Garsden, Simpson Millar LLP Solicitors