PLOD IN THE FRAME AGAIN

Some interesting news for your delectation:  Alison Saunders, the beleaguered Director of Public Prosecutions, will not be offered an extension to her five year contract when it expires in October.  I wonder why not.

According to Alison, it was her decision to shoulder arms, and any suggestion that the government has had enough of her questionable competence is flatly contradicted by her, but then, it would be wouldn’t it?

Is it only five years since Ms. Saunders was appointed?  It sees much longer.  In fairness to her, she has done her best with limited intelligence to run an enormous and unwieldy service, and inevitably mistakes were going to be made.  But the difference between a leader and an also ran is the ability to sort out the mess, admit mistakes, put them right and move on.

Before the creation of the Clown Prosecution Service in 1986, Plod used to prosecute their own cases on their own patch, they had their own solicitors, and for the most part, their cases were farmed out to local barristers.  It was all very cosy and incestuous.  If mistakes were made, they were ‘corrected’ in-house, and life went on.  By keeping it local, blunders, and worse still, blatant corruption, were swept under the carpet, and the lads stuck together.  Corroboration, an important and independent part of the prosecutor’s armoury, consisted of one police officer signing his colleague’s pocket book to signify agreement without even reading it, and putting it before the jury as the cast-iron truth, on my babby’s life!

The worst excesses of local prosecutions came with the signed confession, long before the days of tape recorders, when confessions were faithfully recorded in the interviewing officers’ pocket books well after the confession was made, and usually over a mug of tea in the police canteen. The oft repeated maxim that the notes were made whilst matters were still fresh in the memory was all that was required.  It was fertile ground for fabrication and ground that was regularly tilled.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting that Plod to a man were corrupt, but as they say, all it takes is one bad apple.  The idea that a national prosecuting service would bring respectability to the task of bringing the guilty to justice slowly took root, and in 1986, during the reign of the Blessed St. Margaret, a former barrister, the Clown Prosecution Service was born, in the hope that there would be uniform national standards applied to address the criticisms of incompetence and  worse still, corruption.  It has been better than before, but not without its problems.

But what has been Ms. Saunders’ undoing has been sex, and her pathetic  and dangerously complacent response to it.  I refer specifically to the recent scandal of sexual complainants lying to Plod and even to the jury when no sexual abuse had taken place.  There are all sorts of excuses and explanations, but its root cause is the direction from on high to Plod to believe without question these false allegations.  In so doing, they are not properly investigated, if at all, and for the most part, these allegations take place in private, with one person’s word against another’s.  This is where independent corroboration, not fabricated, is vital in the pursuit of the truth, and sadly, Ms. Saunders has been found wanting.  Worse still, she won’t admit it.

She was an in-house appointment, which was a mistake.  Word on the street is that the government has acknowledged that the post of Director of Public Prosecutions is not one for intellectual pygmies, so the search for the next director will cast a wide net.  It’s a thankless task, so I cannot see many heavyweight legal luminaries putting their names forward.  And before you ask, no, I have no intention of supping from the poisoned chalice.

There is much work to be done, and little time to restore damaged reputations.  So my strong advice to Ms. Saunders in the remaining 6 months, say and do as little as possible to preserve your publicly funded and very generous pension.

TIME TO CALL A HALT

New revelations of alleged sexual abuse or impropriety hit the headlines daily, and the media feeding frenzy continues unabated. The most recent include a Liberal Democrat Party worker and a Prince of the Catholic Church.  Is there no end in sight?

There are so many more interesting and relevant things to report, such as the loss of the United Kingdom’s cherished triple ‘A’ status, determined by a group of unaccountable economists who, unlike the rest of us, apparently have a crystal ball to foretell our financial future. And frankly, does it matter a jot? No.

Then we have the Italian General Election, which, being Italy, breaks all the rules.  Worse still, it leaves Italy ungovernable, which has serious implications for the rest of Europe. Third place in the popular vote goes to Beppe Grillo, I kid you not, who was a former comedian, so well suited to Italian political life.

I mention these important events simply because you may not have heard of them, such is the media preoccupation with sex and sleaze.

In most of these cases, the allegations go back decades.  Nothing was said at the time, or if it was, it was not given credence. But because of media prurience, these historical allegations are given prominence, as if there are true, leaving the accused the only defence available, which is a flat denial.

If and when these allegations get to court, and some of them will, the judge will allow the prosecution to proceed in the face of defence objections that their client cannot possibly receive a fair trial.  In the best traditions of Pontius Pilate, the judge will wash his hands of any responsibility and rule that it is a matter for the jury.  Let’s hope, in the interests of justice, that well worn phrase, that these accused don’t get the same jury recently inflicted on Vicky Pryce!

I have argued before, and I repeat my argument, that there should be the criminal equivalent of a Statute of Limitations which is applied to the civil law.  It can be tailored to accommodate young children who have been abused, usually within the family, with the cut off point when they reach majority. If 18 year olds are qualified to sit on a jury, get married without parental consent, drive a car and buy a property, surely they are old enough to report their abuser.

In these circumstances, the complainant and the alleged abuser can mount proper cases which can be tried and tested in a court of law.  Witnesses for both parties may be alive and can be expected to remember dates and significant events.

I had a case many years ago when a school caretaker was accused of abusing children going back 30 and 40 years. When it came to trial, most of his witnesses were either dead or untraceable.  In reply to a submission that he could not receive a fair trial, the judge ruled it was a matter for the jury.  The jury convicted, and he received 18 years’ imprisonment.

If that is justice, I am Horace the Hedgehog.

FALSE MEMORY SYNDROME

Memory and the Law is a report, just published by the British Psychological Society, retreading a well worn path that was made public many years ago by American researchers into the same topic, and which they labelled False Memory Syndrome. In this regard, the British research is hardly breaking new ground.

American researchers, when analysing the findings of professional consultants into clinically depressed and psychiatrically disturbed patients, found an alarming correlation between “auto-suggestion” and “unsubstantiated” allegations of abuse. In short, these patients believed they had been abused at one time or another in the dim and distant past, usually within the family circle, or sometimes within the wider circle of school, to explain their depression or mental illness, and even when it was pointed out to them that the alleged abuse could not have happened, they remained adamant that it had.

Not so long ago, there was a raft of prosecutions relating to the physical and sexual abuse of boys at approved schools in England and Wales going back to the fifties and sixties, and I was involved as defence counsel in some of them. Time and again, submissions that the trial should not proceed on the basis that the accused could not receive a fair trial fell on deaf ears, both at the court of trial and the Court of Appeal. The “reasoning” of these courts had a familiar theme to it, namely that an accused was entitled to an acquittal if the jury were not sure of guilt, that the trial judge was eminently well placed to ensure a fair trial, and that the delay, and the difficulties attendant upon it, was but “one factor” to be considered in the overall picture. All this, of course, is arrant nonsense when looked at in the round, and even a cursory examination gives the lie to this simplistic approach. It does the criminal justice system no credit whatsoever to pretend otherwise.

Imagine if you were living in Poland during the war, minding your own business and trying to survive, and then, fifty years later, somebody stood up, pointed an accusing finger at you, and swore on oath that you were a concentration camp guard working for the Nazis, and in that capacity, had perpetrated acts of unspeakable evil. And what is your defence? It is unlikely in the extreme, so long ago, that you can remember what you were doing on any given day when you were allegedly abusing prisoners, so your chances of calling witnesses by way of alibi are zero. And therein lies the injustice, because it places the onus on the accused to prove his innocence, and if his defence is that it didn’t happen, that’s no defence at all.

I am aware of comments made by Professor Gary Slapper, a professor of law at the Open University [The Times 11th July], supporting the present system. He states, and I quote: “The criminal justice system already has many good protections against unfair convictions!” I doubt if he has ever set foot in a criminal court of law, let alone practised at the coalface. If he had, he wouldn’t be making such an asinine comment, and his students are the poorer for this blinkered approach.

The immediate remedy for this patent injustice against those facing serious allegations brought many years later is to apply a period of limitation, in much the same way as applies to civil actions, where the limitation period is between three and six years. There are circumstances where judicial discretion allows a claim to proceed outside the limitation period, and I have no objections, in rare and extreme cases, for such discretion to be applied to criminal proceedings. But when it comes to deciding if the accused can receive a fair trial, it should be for the prosecution to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he can, and not, as is the present case, for the accused to prove that he can’t.