Too many Victims, too much damage

Deep breath.This blog began life with a dangerously illiberal random thought.

Why should we not presume as a matter of law that the account of a victim is fundamentally correct? Presume in the absence of evidence to the contrary. The consequences even more so: why should we make most victims ever have to relive their terror in court in public?

No I have not lost my reason. I knew perfectly well that such sentiments play straight into the hands of an intolerance conservatism that would diminish the role of defence lawyers even further. Of course I know that my precepts are far too widely stated. What about alleged victims in a domestic situation, who invent allegations to evict an unwanted partner out of the house? Are you really saying that they should be accepted on the nod?

No of course not. But more modestly, I really would like to start a debate about some victims who should be nowhere near a court to relive the ordeal which they have endured. Part of that debate should be to develop innovative alternative methods to present their harrowing accounts in court.

Let me draw up a shortlist of two.

1. Victims of burglary where violence by strangers is an issue.

Evidence in chief would be the simple video account they gave to the officer visiting their home with a film camera. Please note that I am suggesting they should avoid a police station altogether. Such an account would have a very powerful emotional effect as, for example, they point to the items of furniture against which they fell, as the intruder struck. Any cross examination should be filmed in advance at the scene or a venue which is not the court itself.

You see the point and the general thrust of the argument.

We are not doing nearly enough to make the victims of violence be able to relive their agony in as simple and sympathetic a way as possible.

2. Victims of rape and assault

I argued last year that in theory it should be possible for such victims never to have to leave the safety of their own home to give their account. I envisaged something like an outside broadcast truck outside. Of course I realized the financial constraints which would make such a suggestion impossible to implement nationwide in the short term. But there was the chance to start with a few exceptional cases.

So start by doing everything we can to make it easier for the victim to tell their story.

HANG ON! What about a defendant who has denies the attack from the outset. Is he to have even even less rights in such a victim centred-world? His fundamental right to have his case to be put squarely to the so-called victim. ‘THIS NEVEr HAPPENED.’

Of course not. I am troubled by the existing restraints on cross examination. I simply want to get to a position where we limit the damage we already do to some, as a part of the adversarial process. His case must be put consisely, clearly and once. Then left.

And no, since you ask, I do not favour the overthrow of the presumption of innocence.

I just want a better deal for traumatized victims.

Food for thought for court reformers.

Suggestions please.

Nigel Pascoe QC

Sexual Abuse Enquiry.- one way forward

I have not written at length about Sexual Abuse, save for a strong plea for proper process, no hysteria and above all, acting on the evidence. Recently, I have came across several well written pieces which made me think about the nature of the enquiry that is needed. Let us forget the issue of a Chair for the moment.

Parliamentary Abuse

There seems to be a body of evidence emerging of very serious historic sexual abuse, particularly of young adolescent boys, by an unknown number of members of Parliament and members of the House of Lords. I refuse to speculate on any past or current names. It must be tempting to call it an organized VIP paedophile ring and it may have been. Hard facts are scarce at present, but let us infer much more than one offender ringing another from time to time to inform of a planned event. We are in the territory of vulnerable children transported to specific locations to bugger and abuse.

That degree of hidden organized or semi-organized abuse MUST be exposed as soon as possible in the mainstream press. Why? Because it is such a terrible abuse of power, whatever the precise parliamentary status of the offender. It is very, very serious alleged abuse. If proved, age will not prevent long prison sentences,

Sticking to the strict principle of acting on real complaints, I would hope that an enquiry would have the courage to name all well-known dead abusers where there is cogent evidence. Where there is not, then the press must be responsible. I am not in favour of trashing the reputations of former politicians on little more than hearsay.

Schools and Educational units

This suggestion will be painful for many responsible, respected, upright contemporary Headmasters and Principals. But I think, on the same basis as above, that old dead abusers should be named, school by school, where there is a sufficient body of reliable evidence.

The right way to forward that issue is for each school to seek legal advice from experienced advocates. Again if the evidence is tittle-tattle which would not support a prosecution, let them rest. But dead school abusers should be named. Even where their reputations have been high and they have done real service to their schools. Abuse should be exposed. Sleeping dogs in this loathsome area should not be allowed to lie. Some victims will receive some degree of resolution from such a process. Further it may deter would-be abusers. Good parents would support a brave Head who followed such a policy.

Church Abuse

Here I take some comfort from the very recent behaviour of Anglican and Catholic authorities. They are prepared now to face up to naming past abusers and in the process, may earn grudging respect across the board. What is most important is the existence of procedures to prevent abusers of the future. Church authorities will want to take appropriate legal and other advice and act immediately on reports of abuse. I should add that they should also support very robustly clergy and priests who have been wrongly accused.

I have only named three areas where abuse is known to have occurred. There are many others. That brings inevitably the real question of the scope and length of any enquiry. Is the subject simply too big for one enquiry? Can it hope to report in anything other than very general terms?

Here we simply have to trust the men and women of good will already appointed and determined to make it work. It would help if they put into the public arena their working plan, once a Chair has been appointed.

One final point for our politicians. You make this a political issue at your peril. But you must be prepared to support responsible public exposure. This clamour is not going to go away.

Nigel Pascoe QC