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'Witch Hunt' or Justice for Victims?

09/05/2013 17:59 BST | Updated 09/07/2013 10:12 BST
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If someone committed a crime against you should they be let off if it had happened a long time ago? Or would you still want to see justice done, no matter how much time had passed?

Well today there has been a lot of debate about comments by a leading lawyer who described the investigation of historical sexual offences under Operation Yewtree as the 'witch-hunting of ageing celebs'.

Let's look at a few of her comments in more detail.

She said that offences committed by Stuart Hall against children were 'low-level misdemeanours' and 'nothing like serious crime'. And that 'touching a 17-year-old's breast, kissing a 13-year-old, or putting one's hand up a 16-year-old's skirt, are not remotely comparable to the horrors of ... gang rape.'

I agree, they are less serious offences when compared to rape but they are still sexual offences and the impact on the victims can be huge. The implication here is that a reasonable defence for committing minor offences is that the person didn't do something even worse. Following that line one could argue that it's ok to go shoplifting because you could have committed an armed robbery, but didn't.

In any case, Stuart Hall has pleaded guilty to abusing children as young as 9-years-old, and I think most people would agree that crimes of this nature are incredibly serious.

She then cites the passage of time as a reason not to pursue justice. And she goes on to recommend that the law should 'introduce a strict statute of limitations for criminal prosecutions and civil actions'.

Well, under existing law a crime must be reported within a reasonable time or a prosecution won't be pursued. So if you reported to the police that your house was burgled 3 years ago they would probably decline to take it any further. However, this law does not apply for sexual offences. This is important as, especially in cases of child abuse, people may not come forward for many years.

Why would they wait so long? Well, when a child or young person is sexually abused they often feel incredibly confused. Some very young children may not even understand that it is abuse until many years later. Others will feel a sense of shame or guilt because their abuser has manipulated them to make them feel as if they are to blame. This is very common with many abusers deliberately manipulating the situation and abusing their power over the child to make the victim feel ashamed and guilty for what has happened.

Some victims will feel a confusing mixture of love and anger at their abuser if it is someone close to them. They may not want to report the abuse for fear of losing that person from their life or breaking up their family. And many will simply push the abuse to the back of their mind and try to get on with their lives. They may not want to relive the horror by thinking about it, let alone saying it out loud and even having to go to court and discuss it in front of a room full of strangers.

Because of these reasons and more, many people stay quiet for years. And sadly many have spoken out but were ignored and have decided not to try doing it again.

It has taken decades to get to the point where the victims of sexual offences feel able to come forward - too often in the past they were not believed, or the assaults were dismissed as harmless and not worthy of the law's attention. The actions of those who are speaking out now may also give confidence to other victims to come forward.

Finally, she suggests reducing the age of consent to 13.

I think any suggestion of lowering the age of consent could put more young people at risk from those who prey on them.

Let's get one myth out of the way. The age of consent is not there to criminalise young people who have sex with each other - it exists to protect them from sexual predators like Savile.

The NSPCC has always been clear that we would not want to see teenagers under 16 prosecuted for having sex provided there was no coercion or force involved. Indeed police forces up and down the country use discretion every day in situations where teenagers are effectively breaking the law but where it is not in anyone's interest to press charges.

But in cases of adults grooming older children, a 14 year-old for example may feel mature enough to make an informed decision at the time to have sexual intercourse with a much older person. In hindsight they realise they were far too young and the adult had a responsibility, both morally and legally, to not pursue that relationship. It may not occur to them they were groomed and abused until they are much older.

The NSPCC aims to work in partnership with lawyers and policy makers to ensure that the legal framework protects children from harm while ensuring that justice is pursued fairly and transparently.

So it's sad to see these outdated and simply ill-informed views that would be shocking to hear from anyone, but coming from a highly experienced barrister simply beggar belief.