THE BLOG

The Child Sexual Abuse Inquiry - Whatever Next?

01/12/2014 12:57 GMT | Updated 30/01/2015 10:59 GMT

A petition has just closed asking for Michael Mansfield QC to chair the UK Government proposed child sexual abuse inquiry in the UK. It has also been suggested that he will chair an alternative "peoples" inquiry. The traditions of the Bar are fearlessness and Mr Mansfield has challenged authority effectively for his entire career. His involvement may be a very good idea but not necessarily as chair and certainly not chairing an alternative. The purpose of a child sexual abuse inquiry is to look at institutional responses to child sexual abuse. Where is the expertise in either suggested body? What is the purpose of an alternative? What powers would such a body have? Will victims have to give evidence twice? Just a few short questions that demonstrate what a mess this all is. A mainstream inquiry needs to be effective and trustworthy. An alternative process might initially appear laudable but it has the potential to be really cruel. Mr Mansfield does well to expose the mess and the Government would do well to engage with the experts.

It was welcome news that the UK Government was prepared to hold a Child Sexual Abuse Inquiry. Sadly, as a result of hasty appointments, it is now a total embarrassment which is almost legitimising the suggestion of an alternative. Appointing Dame Elizabeth Butler Sloss was a mistake. Frankly, aside from her establishment connections, which should have been obvious, she was too old. Run properly, this Inquiry will take years. After Dame Butler Sloss resigned there was Fiona Woolf: A commercial lawyer who has no experience of dealing with vulnerable witnesses, no knowledge of the decades of changing laws on sexual offending and who was also a member of the establishment. Was she the second woman they could think of? Was it an attempt at a cover up? The errors in appointment have caused conspiracy theories to abound and it is this fear of a cover up that is fuelling the suggestion of an alternative body without a focus on how this could affect those who would give evidence. How sad it would be for them if the alternative had no teeth or the official inquiry had no guts.

The appointments and the process for any Child Sexual Abuse Inquiry should be totally transparent. There is no reason why Mr Mansfield should not be considered but in my view there should be one inquiry, it should be chaired by a judge and should have statutory powers. There are judges who do not have establishment connections and there are experienced women judges, although not as many as there should be. For other roles, along with Mr Mansfield, there are senior women QC's who specialise in cases involving sexual offending who would fit the roles extremely well. I have already suggested that the best solution would be a Special Commission that engages all 28 member states of the EU, including the Vatican, where the UK CSA Inquiry could do its part, but the chances of that are so slim that the UK clearly needs to focus initially on its own failures and to get on with the job. This requires the skill of an experienced judge and statutory powers. If a job is to be done it must be done properly. Ironically as a result of generations of discrimination whilst there are not enough women at the top, those that are have specialised in cases involving the vulnerable because traditionally that's the sort of work that women at the Bar are given. News is that the UK Government has a list of 100 potential candidates.

An appointment system is always fraught but it has worked in this context in Australia where I hold a research post. I have watched the Royal Commission in Australia with interest. It has suffered less scrutiny and is widely regarded as quietly getting on well. Civil actions are following as fresh evidence of horrors are revealed. The public filming of the hearings is helping with transparency and understanding. In any such process, there has to be some trust but how much is left in the UK after the appointment debacle, goodness knows. It is all such a shame for the victims and for the future treatment of children by institutions. In the 1970's the maximum sentence for serious indecent assault including oral penetration on a female was 2 years. This was a law debated and passed in Parliament. This alone indicates the attitude of past Parliamentarians to women and children. The current Parliamentarians have a duty to get this inquiry right. In the end, however long this takes, it would be far better to openly involve those with expertise in the field and no establishment connections rather than to have an alternative process. I have no doubt that Mr Mansfield would agree.

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