Findings that a 15 year-old and his father had sexually abused friends of the family do not stand up to scrutiny, the Court of Appeal has ruled.
The boy, referred to as ‘A’, had been caught stealing sweets and batteries from a shop with three younger children in February last year. Following their arrest, the Police traced the youngster’s parents. A’s mother and father and the mother of the three younger children were all found at the latter’s home, in an “ inebriated and aggressive state”.
As a result, all four children were taken into police protection overnight. A returned to his mother and father the following morning but the other three were taken into foster care and the local authority eventually launched full care proceedings.
Later, in May, the youngest of three siblings suddenly announced to t her foster carer that both A and his father had sexually abused her and her brother. Her allegations were partly supported by her brothers.
Following a pre-arranged holiday, the children were interviewed by the Police, and then so was A, under caution, following his arrest. He denied all the allegations, as did his father.
The children had claimed the sexual abuse occurred in nearby hotels and been filmed and that there was a hiding place in a wall at A’s family home. Following a detailed police investigation, however, no evidence was found to substantiate any of these suggestions.
The investigating offer reported:
“With all the enquiries I have undertaken I have not found any evidence that corroborates the children’s disclosures or prove any offences have taken place.”
The police closed their investigation, concluding that the allegations would not stand up to scrutiny and there was no realistic prospect of a conviction.
However, A was placed in “a specialist residential unit for young victims and/or perpetrators of sexual abuse” and has remained there ever since under a temporary care order.
In January this year, at a fact-finding hearing, at Judge concluded, despite the police findings, that the sexual assaults had in fact taken place, in a “climate of fear” created by A’s father.
Unsurprisingly, the case went to appeal, where Lord Justice McFarlane examined the case in detail. He overturned Judge Watson’ findings
There had been significant flaws in procedural practice during the process of interviewing the three siblings, the Court of Appeal declared. Full notes had not been kept and the prescribed preliminary stage had not been recorded. During this the interviewer is required to establish rapport with the child and explain the importance of telling the truth during the interview.
In addition, the Judge had not properly assessed or analysed inconsistencies in the evidence given by the children, explained Lord Justice McFarlane.
“I am afraid that I consider that the judge’s approach to the many inconsistencies within the children’s accounts falls well short of the level of analysis that this evidence required. … whilst it is correct that the inconsistencies did not demonstrate that the children were trotting out a script, that observation could not, at a stroke and without more, obviate the need for the judge to evaluate the inconsistencies in more detail.”
“… it is simply not possible to hold that each child giving a different account in his or her … interview in some manner corroborates the account given by one or both of the others.”
The Judge had also not properly taken into account the possibility that A’s references to sexual matters during his own interviews had in fact been a reference to a separate incidence of abuse involving his uncles. A’s human rights, including his right to a fair trial, had been breached to a “substantial degree”, said Lord Justice McFarlane.
It would be up to the local authority, the parties involved and the lower courts to decide whether not to stage a retrial.
Read Re E (A Child) here.