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Researching Reform: Child abuse inquiry - will the recent guidance on the destruction of documents be enough to preserve valuable evidence?
Sep 29, 2018, 22:12 PM
family law, children, Child abuse inquiry
In the wake of documents on child sexual abuse at Gordonstoun School in Scotland, which have now mysteriously gone missing, what impact will this guidance have and can it protect any remaining documents in existence which shed light on child abuse in England and Wales?
On 23 June 2015, the Inquiry sent out
further instructions on what may or may not be destroyed by Government and
other agencies whose remits involve the detection, investigation and, or, prevention of child abuse. The guidance was
contained within letters which were sent to the Cabinet Secretary, as well as
all religious leaders, the NHS, the Police Force and Local Authority CEOs. The
letters set out the kinds of documents which must be kept pending requests from
the Inquiry itself.
As the Inquiry’s terms of reference are so broad and the panel are not quite sure
what they’re looking for just
yet, the guidance itself is not confined to a small cross section of materials
but attempts to capture types of documentation instead, with the hope of acting
much like a large dragnet, catching as much detail as it can.
The guidance lists categories of documentation
for retention as:
'… any and all documents; correspondence; notes; emails and all
other information –however held –which contain or may contain content pertaining
directly or indirectly to the sexual abuse of children or to child protection
and care.For the purposes of this appendix, the word “children”relates to any person under the age of 18.'
Types of documents include reports, reviews,
briefings, notes and even correspondence in relation to allegations
(substantiated or not) of individuals, whether having knowledge of or having
engaged in sexual activity with children, or exploitation of children.
Materials relating to institutional failures to protect children from abuse and
those documents touching upon the responsibilities of departments in this area
are also included. Interestingly, the last section also encompasses materials
relating to how Honours awards were made to people who have since been shown to
have had a sexual interest in children, or suspected of having such an
It is a noble and necessary instruction, and on
the face of it looks like a gargantuan task, but once the Inquiry starts to ask
for documentation, will what appears before them be less of a mountain and more
of a mole hill? The recent scandal over the sudden disappearance of police
files on child sexual abuse which was alleged to have taken place at
Gordonstoun School is not an isolated incident. England has been blighted by
the missing file phenomenon for some time. A quick internet search reveals
thousands of entries all relating to missing files on child sexual abuse in the
UK. From the Wanless Review, to the missing files relating to the Rotherham
Child Abuse Scandal, there really does not seem to be much left to protect. And
there is no guarantee that the guidance will stem the flow of disappearances,
The Inquiry’s statutory status allows it to compel witnesses to give evidence
and procure documentation, and it also has the power to penalise people who are
caught destroying materials. Under section 35 of the Inquiries Act 2005, any person
who intentionally alters or destroys a document which has been requested is
guilty of an offence, and liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding
level three on the standard scale or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding
the relevant maximum, or to both. Whilst this could work as a deterrent in some
quarters, the stakes being as high as they are, it is likely that documentation
will continue to go missing. The Inquiry
itself is also unable to prevent the loss of valuable evidence save for
the deterrent in place and this makes the Inquiry cumbersome and in relative
terms, unresponsive to what is a time sensitive issue.
Very little information other than the letters
provided by the Inquiry explain how the materials will be sourced, who will
decide what kinds of documents are required, and most importantly, who will be
in charge of collecting those documents. It is hoped that the Inquiry will look
to current documents in their possession, statements from survivors and victims
of abuse and already established reports and reviews which are readily
available in order to start tracking down the files they need.
In the meantime, all survivors and victims of
abuse can do, is hope that internal pressures are not applied onto those
charged with retrieving documents and at least some files of significance can
be located and used to put together the pieces of this national atrocity. The views expressed by contributing authors are not necessarily those of Family Law or Jordan Publishing and should not be considered as legal advice.