The large scale inquiry into
historic child abuse in England and Wales
has gotten off to a rocky start,
having lost both chairs successively due to a string of concerning disclosures
which tainted both Baroness Butler-Sloss and London Lord Mayor Fiona Woolf, but
what kind of inquiry is it and will it be able to make a meaningful impact for
those children who have suffered at the hands of paedophiles in the UK?
In June 2014, over 120 MPs wrote to the Home Secretary Theresa May,
asking her to set up an investigation into the growing number of historic child
abuse allegations in the United
Kingdom. The following month, May announced
Independent Panel Inquiry would be held which would “consider the extent to which State and non-State
institutions have failed in their duty of care to protect children from sexual
abuse and exploitation; to consider the extent to which those failings have
since been addressed; to identify further action needed to address any failings
identified; and to publish a report with recommendations.”
The inquiry itself is a
form of public inquiry, and under the current guidelines issued by the
government, will cover England and Wales (though not Northern Ireland), and
will consider matters from 1970 onwards, though there is remit to change this
time line if evidence is produced during the inquiry that would suggest a
rethink of the time frame. The inquiry’s age limit for child abuse victims is
18, though the inquiry will look at those over that age if the abuse started
when they were minors. Allegations of child abuse uncovered during the inquiry
will be passed on to the police, though Section 2 of the
Inquiries Act 2005 prohibits the inquiry from determining civil or criminal
liability. Nevertheless, the panel members are given some breathing space in
the Act, which allows them to carry out their functions uninhibited by any
likelihood of liability being inferred from determination of fact or
recommendations that they may make.
When choosing a panel
8 of the Inquiries Act tells us that the Minister responsible for selecting
him or her will have to have regard to that potential panel member’s expertise,
and where more than one panel member is being considered (notwithstanding the
inclusion of the Chairman), a balance on that panel must be sought – so that
the panel is well rounded and covers the necessary areas of expertise for the
context of the inquiry.
The Chairman too, is
subject to regulation and it is this regulation that has caused considerable
difficulty for the inquiry. Under Section 9 of the Inquiries Act 2005, we see
of Impartiality clause. This section reads:
Minister must not appoint a person as a member of the inquiry panel if it
appears to the Minister that the person has—
(a) a direct
interest in the matters to which the inquiry relates, or
(b) a close
association with an interested party,
despite the person's interest or association, his appointment could not
reasonably be regarded as affecting the impartiality of the inquiry panel.
(2) Before a
person is appointed as a member of an inquiry panel he must notify the Minister
of any matters that, having regard to subsection (1), could affect his
eligibility for appointment.
(3) If at any
time (whether before the setting-up date or during the course of the inquiry) a
member of the inquiry panel becomes aware that he has an interest or
association falling within paragraph (a) or (b) of subsection (1), he must
notify the Minister.
(4) A member
of the inquiry panel must not, during the course of the inquiry, undertake any
activity that could reasonably be regarded as affecting his suitability to
serve as such.
Butler-Sloss and Lord Mayor Fiona Woolf were found not to have met the
requirement of impartiality, though interestingly not by the selecting Minister
Theresa May, but by the British public, which included some robust legal minds.
amongst the first to raise concerns over Butler-Sloss’s impartiality, citing
her connections to the establishment in the 1980’swhen her brother was Attorney
General, as a concern. Butler-Sloss’s report in 2011 on child abuse within the
Church of England was also highlighted – it was widely felt that she was biased
in favour of the church.
Lord Mayor Fiona Woolf did
not fare much better. As required by the Inquiries Act, she wrote a letter to Theresa May
any potential interests or associations that could affect the eligibility of
her appointment. The letter was later found to have been redrafted no less than
seven times by civil servants in an attempt, so it was alleged by the media, to
play down her connections with Lord Brittan, who was thought to have been
involved in the disappearance of a dossier in 1984, on alleged high profile
paedophiles. Concerned by this development, victims and survivors of child
abuse in Britain
voiced their disapproval through media outlets, urging Woolf to resign. Looking
to the requirements of the Inquiries Act 2005, the BBC reported that one
survivor had even filed for judicial review, arguing that Woolf was not
impartial, did not have the relevant expertise and would not have the time
required to devote herself to the inquiry. The damage was done – Fiona Woolf
resigned on 31 October, and the Inquiry found itself once again
without a Chairman.
The Chairman is typically
required to have a strong sense of fairness, excellent evidence gathering
skills and be able to manage the rest of the panel whilst at the same time
keeping the tempo of the inquiry stable. An inquiry without a Chairman is essentially
in a state of limbo, and the recent news that survivors are now calling on the
government to extend the inquiry’s remit to include Northern Ireland and to compel
witnesses to give evidence and see those who give false statements prosecuted,
has thrown the inquiry into a deeper state of flux.
awkwardness of such an important inquiry seemingly suffering from too limited a
scope and muddling along without a Chairman, there are other concerns too,
which are rumbling underneath the surface. The question that is being asked,
other than who will replace Fiona Woolf as the new Chairman for the inquiry, is
this: what good will the inquiry really do, in any event?
Public inquiries are
sometimes viewed with scepticism. Panel members are scrutinised and much debate
can be had over whether those chosen to work on the inquiry are really
qualified to do so. Child abuse inquiries are often criticised by survivors of
abuse who feel that inquiries of this nature can’t ever really make a difference
without the inclusion of abuse victims on the panel, who bring with them direct
experience and a deep knowledge of the problems involved. And then there are
the recommendations made by the inquiry themselves. From Victoria Climbie, to
Baby Peter, countless inquiries (over 70 at the last count) and investigations
into child protection issues have still not had any tangible effect on reducing
the abhorrent phenomenon that is child abuse.
And yet, despite these
flaws, public inquiries can offer certain benefits. They can expose
uncomfortable truths, and they can offer ways of ensuring that terrible
tragedies are averted in the future. They can and do make a difference – but
only if the victims of these crimes are given a pivotal role in the inquiry
process and not treated as a statistic with a story to tell.
Impartiality is the
central tenet on which every public inquiry must rest. It should also
incorporate a brave and independent Chairman who can be trusted, not by the
establishment in the first instance, but by the public and most importantly,
those who have survived ordeals most of us have thankfully never endured. If
the inquiry really wishes to make a difference, it will need to appoint a
fierce new leader and allow the survivors of child sexual abuse to have a voice
in the inquiry, a voice it so desperately needs –the voice of the child.
The views expressed by contributing authors are not necessarily those of Family Law or Jordan Publishing and should not be considered as legal advice.