The language used too, both by the panel and the Inquiry team needs to be pitch-perfect. The recent furore caused by Scotland’s own inquiry into child abuse is a cautionary tale
. Survivors in Scotland have now found themselves questioning the motives behind the Scottish government’s inquiry into child abuse, after a government document for the inquiry was published. Crucially, the document attempts to make a link between human rights based protection for all those involved in the inquiry, including staff working at highlighted institutions, and the need to establish the facts in each case. The statement which caused offense referred to the desire to make the inquiry, ‘about establishing the truth rather than attributing blame’.
It is not clear exactly what the Scottish government intended to mean, though it reads rather badly. At best, the wording gives the impression that the inquiry is trying to temper unfounded allegations, and at worst, appears to be an attempt by the government to avoid what may well become rather large payouts to victims by eschewing responsibility for apparent abuse. It is now well documented that inquiries of this nature are likely to cost participating governments a great deal of money, as can be seen in a recent report released by Australia’s own Royal Commission into child sexual abuse . Needless to say, survivors in Scotland were left livid after they felt the wording was a deliberate attempt to avoid establishing blame for recognised abuses.
Given the very delicate nature of these inquiries then, thoughtful language must be a bastion in the quest for truth and trust, even though the Inquiries Act itself makes no effort whatsoever to outline expected conduct in relation to the inquiry team. Indeed, there is no specific guidance in the Act on how the inquiry should treat witnesses, at all.
There also appears to be no provision for legal representation for those survivors who, for example, may already have brought a case inside the justice system. Whilst the inquiry cannot be expected to foresee the future with absolute certainty, it would do well to consider a response to what may well be an eventuality – a survivor who refuses to participate fully with the inquiry unless they have legal representation.
This is not as far fetched as it sounds. A
recent report suggests that witnesses in Ireland who are taking part in the
Inquiry there, are now refusing to sign their statements unless they are given
The matter was discussed in court in relation to one survivor’s
case, where she was initially denied legal support during the Historical
Institutional Abuse (HIA) Inquiry by its Chair, Sir Anthony Hart. This
refusal was subsequently overturned by the High Court, but Sir Hart is now
challenging that decision. This turn of events has left remaining survivors
anxious, and now many are refusing to sign their statements unless they are
assured legal assistance. Section 17 of the
Inquiries Act 2005
, tells us that in the making of any decision
regarding procedure or conduct of an inquiry, the chairman must act with
fairness and with regard also to the need to avoid any unnecessary cost
(whether to public funds or to witnesses or others). This will be the ultimate
balancing test for the inquiry when considering legal aid, but it will have to
bear in mind the overt inequality inherent in an inquiry which clearly has
counsel at its disposal, and vulnerable witnesses coming to assist it, who may
There is another, very important aspect to this inquiry, any inquiry in
fact, which finds itself working with survivors. This is the way in which the
inquiry interacts with survivors whether through a parallel panel, if Justice
Goddard goes on to establish one for victims of abuse, or via the wider
channels of the media and future meetings scheduled for survivors and inquiry
members. There is a
growing body of evidence
which suggests that those who have experienced
child abuse are likely to suffer later on in life with conditions like
depression and extreme anxiety, and whilst it would be prejudicial and
counter-productive for any inquiry to assume that every survivor they encounter
suffers in this way, the fact that survivors might respond differently to certain
tones and styles of communication must be acknowledged.
The inquiry process may just be a mechanistic exercise for the panel, but
for victims of child sexual abuse it will play a significant cathartic role in
their recovery. Whether the panel members and Chair like it or not, they are
responsible for ensuring that they do not impede that recovery or cause
survivors more anxiety and pain. In an ideal world they would all be briefed by
a professional on how to engage and support survivors as they collect the
materials they need to carry out their tasks.
This has never been truer than for our own current inquiry, which already
looks set to be dominated by legal minds and which has had communication
troubles in the past. Justice Goddard is herself legally trained, and will no
doubt give the inquiry a legal ‘feel’ in the way she leads and develops it.
This in itself is a double edged sword – both advantageous in the attention to
detail she will no doubt bring, and potentially hazardous if she, and other panel
members do not adjust what can often appear to be abrasive and dismissive
language in the discussions that follow with survivors. The previous panel
learned to its cost the perils of poor communication, riddled
as it was with in-fighting and embarrassing head to heads with survivors.
The panel was dismantled after only a few months. This time around, the inquiry
will need to be especially mindful of its interactions with others.
As well as a clear and compassionate communication policy, the new inquiry
can bolster its relationship with the outside world by ensuring that each panel
member’s professional abilities are not only documented well, but that their
human, emotional abilities are too. The panel members will need to be
approachable, engaging and sympathetic to the cause they have signed up for.
Any documentation on them will need to highlight those traits, and not fall
foul of that particular responsibility through the use of marketing gimmickry
or superficial one-liners. Perhaps a quote from each panel member on the
inquiry’s web site as to why they have chosen to assist the inquiry and
information about who they are as people, not just professionals, could help.
Transparency too will play a large part in building trust. People do not
mind if mistakes are made, as long as the inquiry takes responsibility for them
and forges a way to move past errors and omissions. Telling the nation about
difficulties after they have festered inside the inquiry and spilled over into
the public arena is unhelpful. Keeping the nation updated on progress and
explaining sources of delay so that communication remains live, will be
essential in ensuring the inquiry’s success. Justice Goddard has already gone
some way to making the inquiry organic, in a fashion.
her interview with the Home Affairs Committee last month
, Mrs Goddard
promised to cultivate the inquiry website so that it could act as a meeting
place for survivors, publishing frequent updates on the inquiry’s progress and
making it more user friendly. Updates are now starting to come in, but more
frequency is needed, even if the old site is considered redundant and there
isn’t much to report – it would help to instill confidence in the inquiry if
that conversation started now. But Mrs Goddard has plenty of scope to make this
inquiry truly influential, not just tinker with tech. Section 17 of the
Inquiries Act also tells us that the Chairman has a great deal of latitude,
specifically, her power to direct the procedure and conduct of the inquiry,
subject only to the narrow requirements of Section 41
(which also affirms her right to direct procedure and conduct). If she so
chooses, Mrs Goddard can flex the inquiry’s muscles and take a great weight off
the nation’s shoulders, but she will need support and guidance from every
quarter. If there is one lesson we can take from current inquiries around the
globe, it’s that survivors must be the raison d’etre of any investigation and
that they are also the key to uncovering the truth.
The views expressed by contributing authors are not necessarily those of Family Law or Jordan Publishing and should not be considered as legal advice.