Chris Saltrese is a solicitor who has handled many appeals for those accused of sexual crimes. It was not his original area of legal expertise, however. “I started as a commercial lawyer,” he explained to me, “an area of law that is considerably more lucrative than this one. I ended up handling cases of alleged sex crimes only because it became obvious to me that there was an injustice of colossal proportions taking place.”
Mr Saltrese believes that there are “certainly scores, and very possibly hundreds” of men who have been convicted of sexual crimes who are rotting in prison with no prospect of release, but who are not guilty and should never have been sentenced.
These men have all been convicted on the uncorroborated allegations of people they knew 10, 20, sometimes even 40 years ago, and whom they have not seen since. It seems incredible that, in English law, such unsupported allegations should be enough to get a man sent to prison for a decade or more. But that is the present situation.
Thanks to the steady erosion of the rules of evidence governing sexual offences, culminating in decisions by the Law Lords in 1991 and 1995, a defendant can face multiple allegations at the same trial. None of those allegations need have any corroboration; each, considered on its own merits, may be insufficient to suggest sexual abuse took place, but the effect of the Law Lords’ rulings has been that together, multiple allegations are, in law, enough to prove not just that the abuse happened, but that the defendant was the perpetrator.
How could England’s most senior judges come to insist on a rule of evidence so transparently unreliable as that? It is a question to which only they know the answer. Their underlying assumption had to be that allegations of sexual abuse should be accepted as true, even if there is no evidence to support them. The result is that the burden of proof is on the accused to prove he is innocent, not on his accusers to prove his guilt.
People are regularly being convicted of sex crimes because that dangerous principle has been embedded into our law. The situation is made worse because of the way the police collect evidence in “historical abuse cases”. Knowing that multiple allegations can produce a conviction, they attempt to trace all former residents at care homes where abuse is believed to have taken place, and to then ask if they have any recollections of abuse.
Police interviewers do not always take “No” for an answer. They justify multiple visits and interviews of the same individual on the grounds that they need to “build a relationship of trust with the witness”, and that the “trauma of the event will lead many to deny it at first, and only later to be able to admit what happened”. Such interviews are not video recorded or even taped by the police as a matter of course. As a consequence, it is impossible to identify whether or not they have “coached” witnesses.
Police officers can also point out to the people they question that there are financial advantages to making accusations which lead to men being convicted, as victims of sexual abuse are entitled to compensation. Care homes are liable for misconduct by their staff and their insurers will not defend claims for compensation when the alleged perpetrator has been found guilty in the criminal courts. The average compensation pay out is in the region of £20,000, but can go as high as £100,000.
The combination of financial incentives for making allegations, and rules for evidence which do not require those allegations to be corroborated by anything except other, similar allegations, is a recipe for injustice. Entirely predictably, complainants have admitted to making up their accusations. Unfortunately, their admissions usually happen only after people have been imprisoned because of their initial complaint.
George Anderson and Margaret Hewitt, for example, were convicted in 2004 of 70 counts of abusing children at a Barnardo’s home more than 20 years earlier. Their convictions were quashed after one complainant admitted that his allegation was entirely invented. He said he had lied in court, and insisted that the other complainants had lied, adding that he knew they lied because he had spoken to them before the trial took place. Furthermore, it was established at the appeal hearing that one of the police officers who had gathered the original evidence had taken the complainants to see a compensation lawyer before Mr Anderson and Mrs Hewitt had even been arrested.
In a sense, people such as Mr Sheikh, Mr Anderson and Mrs Hewitt are the lucky ones, for they have been able to demonstrate their innocence. “There are scores of men in prison today who do not have grounds for appeal,” explains Mr Saltrese. “They were convicted on their accusers’ word alone. The records that might prove their innocence have been lost or destroyed. There is literally nothing they can do to prove that they did not do what they have been accused of doing except reiterate that they did not do it. And that, of course, is not enough.”
More innocent people will be convicted unless the law is changed so that uncorroborated allegations are not enough for a guilty verdict. Trials under the present rules are clearly not fair. The Government knows it, and has known it for years. But there are no plans to change any of the procedures to increase the likelihood that those accused of sexual crimes will be acquitted. On the contrary: the Government insists the conviction rate is too low, and wishes to change the rules again to make convictions more likely.
It can only mean that there will be many more people who end up “bitter with the system” because they have had their lives unjustly destroyed by it.
21st May 2002
A solicitor who represented people accused of abuse in north Wales children’s homes has given evidence to MPs investigating possible miscarriages of justice.
Chris Saltrese – who is critical of police investigation techniques – outlined his concerns to the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee on Tuesday.
As part of the ongoing inquiry into investigative methods, the committee also heard evidence from Rory O’Brien, Chairman of Falsely Accused Carers and Teachers (Fact).
Mr O’Brien is leading the group representing teachers and carers who said they have been falsely accused or imprisoned.
One of the issues raised during the inquiry, which began earlier this month, has been the police tactic of “trawling”.
Trawling involves officers contacting former care home residents, and asking them if they were abused, or if they witnessed incidents of abuse.
Last week journalists told committee members that they believed investigations by three Welsh police forces were flawed.
Gwent Police’s handling of the Ty Mawr inquiry was described as “horrifying”.
Hundreds of suspects were identified but a report later concluded that no sexual or serious physical abuse had taken place.
Politicians want to investigate whether or not this approach results in unreliable evidence.
Over the next few months the committee will hear evidence from a number of bodies including police, solicitors and the Crown Prosecution Service.
Committee chairman Chris Mullin said the inquiry has raised difficult and sensitive issues.
He claimed to have heard suggestions that allegations of miscarriages of justice have arisen from the over enthusiastic tactics used when investigating abuse.
The committee decided to look into the matter following a large number of representations from different parties.
However, it will not investigate individual cases.
The committee will question whether the Crown Prosecution Service draws a “sensible line about which cases should be prosecuted”.