Home Affairs Committee calls for new safeguards to cover prosecutions in historical child abuse cases

The Home Affairs Select Committee has called for a range of new safeguards to cover the investigation and trial of people accused of sexual abuse in children's homes.

In a report published today the Committee calls for audio or video recording of police interviews with alleged victims; anonymity for the accused; a tightening of the rules of evidence; and wider powers for the Criminal Cases Review Commission to enable alleged miscarriages of justice to be reviewed.

The Committee says that "a new genre of miscarriages of justice" has arisen from what it calls "the over-enthusiastic pursuit" of abuse allegations in children's homes, many relating to incidents said to have occurred going back twenty or thirty years. It also says that a large number of people who are not charged may have had their lives ruined or seriously damaged by unfounded allegations.

The report rejects calls for an absolute time limit on the prosecution of such cases, but it suggests a time limit after which such complaints can only proceed with the permission of the court. It also calls for a review of the compensation arrangements for victims with a view to minimising the risk that the possibility of compensation will act as an inducement.

Chairman, Chris Mullin MP said:
"No one wishes to minimise the suffering of victims of abuse or the damage that it can do their lives, but the plain fact is that many police trawls are not generating evidence of sufficient quality to satisfy the burden of proof. A point which is graphically illustrated by the fact that the Crown Prosecution Service rejects a staggering 79 per cent of institutional child abuse cases referred by the police compared to an overall rejection rate of just 13 per cent. I am in no doubt that a number of innocent people have been convicted and that many other innocent people, who have not been convicted, have had their lives ruined."

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David Cameron MP, Conservative member of the Committee said:
"This was a difficult inquiry into a very delicate subject. All allegations of child abuse must be investigated, but guidance is needed to make sure that we avoid miscarriages of justice. I believe that we struck the right balance and hope that the Government will respond positively."

Liberal Democrat member of the Committee Bob Russell MP said:
"As this inquiry progressed I became increasingly alarmed that there are many men in prison who are almost certainly innocent of the serious crimes for which they were convicted. The manner in which evidence was given to the courts, with several people making near identical allegations against one individual, helped create a climate where the truth was difficult to determine. I hope that our Inquiry will assist those who have been wrongly convicted to seek justice through the Court of Appeal or the Criminal Cases Review Commission."

SUMMARY OF MAIN CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

1. Few would dispute the claim that child abuse allegations require careful and sensitive investigation. We believe, however, that when those allegations relate to long past events, the investigation should proceed with caution. Although some guidance has already been produced, there remains a need for clear set of prescriptive guidelines, governing the conduct of police investigations and subsequent prosecution proceedings. In particular, there is an urgent need for the proper recording-either visual or audio-of police interviews of complainant and other significant witnesses. Prosecutions could also be improved by stronger partnerships between the police and the Crown Prosecution Service, with early consultation on the conduct and direction of investigations.

2. Given the prejudicial nature of these offences, and the serious evidential difficulties, we believe there is a strong case for establishing special safeguards for trials in historical child abuse cases. Although we reject the proposal for a statutory time limit, we believe that some form of time limitation is necessary. For this reason, we have recommended that, after a period of ten years, prosecutions should only proceed with the court's permission.

3. The use of similar allegations, as evidence to corroborate a charge, is a particularly sensitive issue. However, given the dangers of prejudice, we believe it is necessary to tighten the rules for excluding such evidence, so that 'similar fact' evidence is only admitted if it bears a striking similarity to the evidence relating to the charged offence. This should, we believe, be accompanied by a presumption in favour of ordering separate trials, in cases where there is no striking similarity between the counts of abuse listed on the indictment.

4. The potential for compensation to act as an inducement for giving false or exaggerated evidence during investigations of this kind, is another area of real concern. To minimise this risk, we have recommended that the working relationship between personal injury solicitors and the police be guided by a 'model relationship', to be drawn up by the Home Office. We believe that the simplest and quickest (and thereby least traumatic) route to compensation, is via the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority and we hope that the Authority will seek to revise its rules and procedures to make the Scheme more attractive to victims of past childhood abuse.

5. We are conscious of the fact that many of these recommendations are simply closing the door after the horse has bolted. All the more important, therefore, that the Criminal Cases Review Commission and the appeal court take a robust approach to the review of suspected wrongful convictions. In the meantime, much can be done to improve the conduct of future investigations and prosecutions.

NOTES TO EDITORS
1. Details of this inquiry were set out in press notice no. 9.

2. Police 'trawling' is defined in paragraph 12 of the report.

3. The Committee makes recommendations to reform the law of 'similar fact' evidence and the rules of severance. These legal concepts are explained in paragraph 94 of the report.

4. The Criminal Cases Review Commission was established in January 1997 with power to refer cases back to the appeal court where "there is a real possibility that the conviction...would not be upheld were the reference to be made", based on "an argument, or evidence not raised in the proceedings". Criminal Appeal Act 1995, s.13(1).

Home Affairs Committee membership and links to the text of Committee reports, minutes of evidence and press notices can be accessed through the Internet at Parliament's website above. Also available on the Committee's Internet site are past reports and uncorrected transcripts of evidence given by Ministers.

Home Affairs Committee
The Home Affairs Committee is appointed by the House of Commons to examine the expenditure, administration and policy of the Home Office and the Lord Chancellor's Department, and their associated public bodies; and the administration and expenditure of the Attorney General's Office, the Treasury Solicitor's Department, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Serious Fraud Office.

Membership
Chairman: Mr Chris Mullin MP (Labour, Sunderland South)
Mr David Cameron MP (Conservative, Witney)
Mrs Janet Dean MP (Labour, Burton)
Mr Humfrey Malins MP (Conservative, Woking)
Bridget Prentice MP (Labour, Lewisham East)
Mr Gwyn Prosser MP (Labour, Dover)
Bob Russell MP (Liberal Democrat, Colchester)
Mr Marsha Singh MP (Labour, Bradford West)
Angela Watkinson MP (Conservative, Upminster)
Mr Tom Watson MP (Labour, West Bromwich East)
David Winnick MP (Labour, Walsall North)