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It was always clear that when the independent panel into child sex abuse morphed into a full blown judicial inquiry under Lady Justice Goddard that the emphasis and atmosphere of the hearings would change.
Now it has started with preliminary hearings into Greville Janner, the Anglican Church, Rochdale and Sir Cyril Smith and the forthcoming one on Lambeth it could couldn’t be clearer.
The tone was set by Ben Emmerson, counsel to the inquiry, when he outlined the role of the inquiry. Meeting in Court no 73 at the imposing Royal Courts of Justice in London it will have the atmosphere of a trial, the trappings of a trial, and a huge surfeit of lawyers representing every conceivable interest you see at any trial.
Each separate inquiry over the next five years will amount to a judicial hearing into the case and there will be a lot of them.The focus will be into looking into events surrounding each case based on strict legal criteria.
This is very different to the workings of an independent panel inquiry. I am a member of one at the moment so cannot comment on its work. But there is a quite a different emphasis in approach between an inquiry which focuses on putting together facts and whose prime responsibility is to the people who have made the complaints and an adversarial inquiry that will be dominated by legal arguments and disputes.
Ben Emmerson, in my view, gave the game away, in his opening address.
He said this on one key point and I report this in full :
“As will be obvious, Madam, the Westminster investigations take place in a highly charged media environment. Allegations of the involvement of politicians in child sexual abuse are reported, on the one hand, as evidence of a paedophile conspiracy at the heart of Westminster and, on the other hand, as evidence of a modern-day witch-hunt. It is the role of this Inquiry to move from the realms of rumour and speculation, allegation and counter-allegation, to the assessment of objective facts.
The Inquiry must consider all relevant documents, take evidence from witnesses and publish a report which sets out in clear terms what the evidence shows. In doing so, the Inquiry will need to remain sensitive to the particular needs of vulnerable complainants without unduly privileging their testimony. The Inquiry will also need to recognise the damage that can be caused by false accusations of sexual abuse, without hesitating to make findings against individuals and institutions if justified by the evidence. “
What concerned me – and I sought guidance from the inquiry on this – is whether survivors who give evidence will find themselves ” on trial ” during this inquiry and subject to rigorous cross examination about what they claimed happened to them.
The inquiry has clarified that it plans no hearings just to cover cases of false allegations which may disappoint the very vocal minority on the internet who claim that the level of child sex abuse is exaggerated and the motives of survivors are to get easy money by lying about what happened to them.
But this threat which I have outlined in bold must be very real for survivors who may want to give evidence in highly contentious cases. If it does – sometime down the route – look at the Westminster paedophile ring – will ” Nick ” be expected to testify and face questions from lawyers for Harvey Proctor who is alleged to be his abuser ( and vociferously denies it)- at the risk that a ” court” will decide he could be publicly condemned for going to the police in the first place.
Judgements are also being made on who should be a ” core participant ” – ie a person who can question all witnesses -and this has already happened at the first preliminary hearing on Greville Janner
Here Nigel O’Mara, a survivor and campaigner applicant for core participant status,is involved in a legal dispute over whether he should be allowed to become one. In an independent panel this would not arise as all victims are treated equally and there are no public hearings. Justice Goddard has had to reserve judgement on this, but it will not be the last.
I raise these issues not because I want the inquiry to fail by highlighting problems for survivors in giving evidence – but to warn of potential pitfalls. If I was a survivor I would weigh up these issues very carefully before giving evidence.