Why legal aid reforms must be stopped, Exhibit A: the "child pornographer"

Innocent people could be in jail if proposed changes to the legal system are implemented. Here is one of them.

This blog seeks to expose some of the myths about our present criminal justice system, myths that have risen to prominence again following publication of the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) consultation paper Transforming legal aid. Myths that have been fed to the media, and the public, by the MOJ.

First, I covered the myth of  the “fat cat” lawyer. Then I went onto the myth of the “scumbag criminals” and I promised to tell you about a few of my husband’s clients. Not the proper scumbag criminals that you read about in the press, but the ones whose stories don’t often get told. The ones who are victims of police and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) blunders and this finger pointing, blame gaming society that we now live in. These are the people who, under the proposed changes to our criminal justice system, would probably be advised to plead guilty and end up with a criminal record and possibly serving time.

NB this is a true story. Certain details that don’t relate to the factual and legal process have been changed to protect those who were involved.

In the beginning

Exhibit A was a retired man, in his early 70s. Married for over 40 years. Never been in trouble with the police in his life. He’d kept up with technological developments was something of a “silver surfer”. He had a laptop and enjoyed using the internet for pursuing his hobbies and keeping in touch with his family and friends.

One day his laptop wasn’t functioning as it should do. He took it to his local computer repair shop. The geeks there went to work. In the course of their work they found a number of images of naked children. As all law abiding, paedophile paranoid citizens would do, they called the police. Let’s face it, who isn’t paranoid these days, when we read so much about paedophiles on every street corner? The police came and had a look at the images. They took the laptop away and made written descriptions of the content of each of the images.  Exhibit A, a bewildered old man, was arrested and taken away for questioning.

Interviewed & charged

The interview transcript shows that the police kept saying to him “you’ve got child porn on your laptop” and he kept saying “no, I haven’t!”.  “You’ve got pictures of naked children, posing provocatively with each other” “no, I haven’t, I don’t know what you are talking about”.  The written descriptions of the images were passed to the CPS. On the basis of these written descriptions, Exhibit A was charged with possession of level 1 child pornography. Level 1 is the lowest level, it does not involve sexual activity but must involve provocative and sexual poses. Because he had never been in trouble in his life and wasn’t thought to be dangerous he was bailed on condition that he wasn’t alone with any children. He went home.

Exhibit A knew he was innocent. But he also knew that, despite what they say, most people believe people are “guilty until proven innocent”, particularly in this age of paedophile paranoia and hysteria. He didn’t want his friends and neighbours to find out and ostracise him, or worse. Because he couldn’t see his beloved grandchildren alone he made up a lot of cock and bull stories over the next few months, to avoid having to tell people what has going on.

A provocative bucket

One evening, a few months later, I was at home with my husband. He was quietly working at the kitchen table, surrounded by piles of paper. I was pottering. The radio was on in the background. I didn’t know what he was working on, often he doesn’t tell me until or unless it starts kicking off.

Suddenly, he shouted “a bucket! What is “provocative” about a f*&$ing bucket?”. I didn’t know either and asked him to explain. It turned out that he was working on yet another child pornography case, that of Exhibit A. He was reading from the police description of one the pictures, the descriptions that had been passed to the CPS, the descriptions on which the CPS had made the decision to charge. The pictures themselves weren’t in the file. The descriptions were certainly sinister, but the bucket was incongruous. Something wasn’t quite right. My husband said “I need to see these pictures”. He emailed the solicitor and asked him to request access to them. Over the next few weeks the request was repeated. My husband became angrier as time passed.

His day in court

The day of the trial came round. As is customary, my husband linked up with his opposite number, the in house CPS barrister. The prosecutor asked if Exhibit A was going to change his plea to “guilty”. “Not till I’ve seen the pictures!” said my husband.  Eventually the police produced the pictures and the two barristers went off to have a look at them. Until this point the CPS barrister hadn’t seen them either. The two barristers looked at each other. They didn’t need to say a word.

My husband went to find his client. He gave a reasonable, measured, description of the photos, omitting the sinister overtones that the police had given them. The pictures were of young children in a garden on a hot summer’s day, playing with water pistols, hoses, buckets, paddling pools, balls etc. It looked like they are having a whale of a time, running about, splashing, laughing, smiling and shrieking. The children are all naked. He asked Exhibit A if he knew anything about them. “Oh yes” he replied “they are my grandchildren!”. The police written description was so far away from reality that Exhibit A had not been able to recognise his own photos. It transpired that the grandchildren had all come over to visit him and his wife one day. It had turned out very hot and the children had all ended up playing with water outside. As we all know, you can’t predict the British weather so they’d not brought their swimmers. That was why they were naked.

In court the Crown offered no evidence. The case was closed. Exhibit A went home a free man.

Why this story should matter to you

  1. Finger pointing – Exhibit A’s nightmare began because someone pointed the finger. This happens ALL THE TIME these days. We could all fall victim to it. For anything. From child pornography to giving someone a bop on the nose.
  2. Police & CPS inadequacies – these don’t have to be deliberate. We can all be a bit overzealous, or have a bad day, forget to double check something, suffer a lapse in judgement etc. and often it won’t have serious consequences. In Exhibit A’s case these factors combined to mean that all that stood between him and a prison cell was his lawyer.
  3. Cost to the public purse – much has been made of the MOJ plans to save £200m from the legal aid budget, never mind that these calculations are based on out of date figures and fundamentally flawed. How much do you think that Exhibit A’s case cost the taxpayer? Not just in legal aid, but in police time, CPS time, court time. Multiply that by the number of spurious and nonsensical prosecutions that happen every year.
  4. Other costs – what about the costs that can’t be measured? The costs to Exhibit A’s emotional and physical health. The costs to his family relationships.
  5. What if this happened to you? Or to your grandson, son, brother, father, uncle, grandfather? Would you want them to be able to choose the lawyer who is going to give the best quality service and act in his best interests? Or, as per the MOJ plans, be allocated the services of a lawyer who just happened to be the cheapest?

Help save our justice system

As things stand the proposed changes to the criminal justice system are going to be brought in under secondary legislation, without any debate. The minister responsible has refused to meet with Michael Turner QC, Chairman of the Criminal Bar Association to discuss the proposals. The media appear to be keeping the story very quiet, or conflating it with other MOJ proposals.

The Save UK Justice e-petition needs 100 000 people to sign it in order for there to be a debate in parliament. If you have not already signed the petition please do so, and ask your friends and family to do the same.

This piece is part of a series of posts exhibiting people at risk due to legal aid changes. It is cross-posted with permission from the A Barrister's Wife blog.

Photograph: Getty Images

Barrister's Wife is a barrister's wife. She writes a pseudonymous blog which offers a behind closed doors view of the justice system.

Photo: Getty
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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for historical child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn become historical investigations because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

Operation Midland, which was set-up to check claims that boys were abused in the 1970s and 80s by a high-level group of paedophiles including politicians, military figures and members of law enforcement agencies, has had up to 40 detectives assigned to it and a similar investigation. Admittedly some of these were murder and major crimes officers but that’s still a large contingent.

In fact if such squads were formed for every historical case the Metropolitan Police would be overwhelmed as last year alone it received reports from nearly 1100 adults – many of them well past retirement age –that they were sexually assaulted when children.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.