A trawl that nets the innocent

Observations on miscarriages of justice

More than three years ago (July 1999), the New Statesman first exposed the scandal of police "trawling" to investigate alleged sexual abuse. Instead of waiting for victims to come forward and make complaints, we reported, the police set out to find allegations by contacting as many former residents of care homes as they could.

Now, the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, after a three-month inquiry, has concluded that such trawling operations have led to "a new genre of miscarriages of justice". The dangers were summed up for the committee by a former care home resident who was interviewed by the South Wales Police. "I felt that I was being bullied by the police into making a complaint," he said. "I was horrified when I was asked during the interview, 'Did Mr B touch you up? . . . Other people have complained that he did.'" He said the police had pointed out "that other former residents would be receiving tens of thousands of pounds in compensation".

This witness resisted the temptation to make a false allegation. Other witnesses do not. "I am in no doubt," said the committee chairman, Chris Mullin, "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". A solicitor suggested that more than a hundred former care-workers had been wrongly convicted. The report calls for the compulsory audio or video recording of police interviews with alleged victims and anonymity for the accused.

It also calls for the rules on "similar fact evidence" to be tightened so that defendants will be less likely to find themselves in the impossibly prejudicial situation of facing, in a single trial, large numbers of sexual allegations all of which may be false. Yet in its pursuit of convictions at all costs - particularly to meet the panic over paedophilia - the government has proposed the opposite: that restrictions on the admission of prejudicial "similar fact evidence" (such as details of previous convictions) should be relaxed still further.

The clamour to obtain convictions by removing safeguards against injustice is not new. It has been going on for almost a century and a series of legal "reforms" has permitted the admission of evidence that is both unreliable and prejudicial. As the report shows this has already led to a perversion of justice on a scale that would once have been unimaginable. Mullin's committee has now given the government a chance to steer a new course.

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