Thursday, 28 February 2013

Northern Ireland Abuse - where next?

The extent of news and announcements surrounding abuse these days is somewhat epidemic. The latest revelation (well perhaps quite not revelation as it has been around for a while) is a Commission of Inquiry in Northern Ireland to look at abuse many years ago within institutions, which will simply have an investigative rather than a compensatory arm.

They have announced a poster campaign to alert survivors to their existence, and encourage them to come forward in order to tell their stories of abuse. For more details go to our Abuselaw webpage where we have posted the story.

The Commission is staffed by various experts in the field, including a fellow ACAL Executive Officer called David Lane, who has many years experience as a Social Work Consultant. They will listen to the allegations of abuse and make recommendations. It is called the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry and can be found on the web at

The Northern Irish Government has been a bit slow to catch up in that its sister, Eire, apologised for abuse committed at the hands of the government in institutions for many years, in partnerships with various religious bodies such as the Catholic Church and various other religious bodes, who had acted in partnership to run the country's care, and educational systems for many years. They set up the Residential Institutions and Redress Board at the beginning of the millennium, and closed its doors in 2005. The compensatory arm was set up at a time when Ireland had a lot of European Grant money, which Britain didn't get, when it joined the Euro. The money has since run out, hence its closure.

Northern Ireland has a similar, but different at the same time, problem to south of the border. Often mentioned is various Nazareth House homes, but there are many others. We have Northern Irish clients too, but normally when they have emigrated over here to escape the poverty (and maybe abuse)

Northern Ireland has the same jurisdiction to England and Wales, but the laws are slightly different locally. The law of sexual abuse and time delays is no different.

I hope that NI extend their government commission to include a compensatory element as it is unreasonable to offer one but not the other. It tells me that they are paying lip service to the need to listen and be understanding without going over the top, denying the victims a choice of speaking their truth, and at the same time appear to be caring for the needs of some of the most vulnerable in our society.

Are lawyers really ripping us all off?

Divorce - a sad experience
In the Guardian today is coverage of a summary of complaints made to the Legal Ombudsman, and top of the list is Divorce. It is said that:-

"The Legal Ombudsman has warned that some solicitors are failing to advise divorcees to settle courtroom battles before costs rise out of control because of the "emotional rawness" of those involved. In a report on the costs of separation, Adam Sampson says that in the economic downturn there is increasingly a tension between lawyers financial self-interest in prolonging legal action and their responsibility to offer clients informed advice. Nearly a fifth (18%) of the 7,500 complaints Mr Sampson's office resolved last year involved divorce or family law-related cases, making it the most complained about area of law in England and Wales. "

This is a difficult point. The client has to be listened to and advised. Many of them come to us because they want a scrap. If we tell them that is a bad thing because divorces are meant to be convivial, then it can sound as though we are not listening or fighting the sort of battle the client wants to fight.

Obviously we have to advise on costs. Indeed there are developing at the moment - we are developing such a model - fixed price modules for different types of work, where it is possible to predict costs due to the type of work involved.

It is standard practise to advise on costs in a client care letter. Often, however, clients are very happy for us to fight their battles until it comes to getting the bill, when suddenly they become unhappy because it dawns on them that we are not working for nothing.

Somewhere between the two extremes there is a middle ground. In an emotional situation, however, there will always be the client, who doesn't want to pay, doesn't want to settle, and wants to fight on. It is the nature of the beast. Divorce brings the worst out of all of us.

With the withdrawal of legal aid in April, there are going to be many many litigants in person, who can't get any justice and who clog up the courts with enquiries. The courts are anticipating this and are coming out with pilots to assess staffing needs. All this, of course, when the government are closing court buildings and getting rid of staff....where will it all end...Armageddon, that's where.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Why did the Pope really resign?

Children run in St. Peter's Square
The Vatican is, it seems, not immune to spin. They have announced that Pope Benedict XVI (not his real name you understand - in a former life he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) has resigned early due to "ill health". Video of him falling asleep during ceremonies has been broadcast. But is that the real reason?

Why do clergy in the Catholic Church have a real name and a religious name? If one becomes Pope, one changes one's name again. If you were a mistrustful victim of abuse, you would say that it makes priests more difficult to trace. Certainly police investigating a children's home run by brothers in Merseyside had just such a problem in the 1990's. The real reason is, of course that they are agents of God, and thus must take on the name of a Saint, it makes logical sense, n'est-ce pas?

It has been said that the retired Pope will live within an apartment inside the walls of the Vatican. Some have speculated that this is to keep him safe from prosecution for moving on sex offending priests in Germany. One cannot believe everything one reads in newspapers, even more so the Internet. In my experience, however, there is no smoke without fire, and that most reports have a grain of truth in them somewhere. At the very least, he was part of a system which seemed to do this sort of thing routinely in the past.

He is the first Pope to retire for 600 years, the remainder have died whilst in post - a strange world where one has to work until one dies. Judges used to be able to work in this country until they were 75, whereas now the age has been lowered to 70. So why do Popes work until they die? Another question - why does the Vatican have its own judicial system, and anonymity for anyone working within it? Tradition, tradition, and tradition dear boy, a creature of history. Pope Benedict is a traditionalist, as is the Catholic Church.

One begins to see why the Pope will be safe within the walls of the Vatican. He will be immune from any interference from outside.

In this Guardian article victims of German Child Abuse campaign outside the Vatican. The German legal system does not appear to be anywhere near as advantageous to victims as the law in England and Wales. I have been a solicitor since the beginning of civil cases in 1994, when the law here, too, was much less helpful to survivors, simply because it had not developed against a backdrop of such cases. I suspect, also, that there is not the backing of Legal Aid, that we have here, which supports such cases - even after April 2013, when the government have managed to demolish Legal Aid on the grounds of cost.

The article goes into detail of how Ratzinger tried to suppress openness in investigation, and was part of the system of moving priests accused of child abuse, who then carried on abusing further in their new location. A familiar story, it appears, all over the world, and certainly in England.

Is the Pope resigning because he is so ashamed of the system he has uncovered. Has he run out of energy and courage to properly uncover, and change it? It is said he is surrounded by like minded Cardinals.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating of humble pie, an open and transparent Catholic Church open to change. Will it happen? Is the Pope a Catholic? Once again I rest my case....keep saying that...must think of something new...or am I just stuck in a rut and reluctant to change...mmm.....

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Should alleged sex offenders have anonymity?

Father McSweeney who has been arrested.
I was reading that "Operation Fernbridge", which is investigating the Elm House Guest House scandal, has arrested a Norfolk Priest called Tony McSweeney. The police have named him. The article refers to him resigning as a governor from the Notre Dame School in Norwich - obviously as a result of the investigation. It appears that the Priest was a visitor to the Guest House, hence the link.

Operation Fernbridge are also looking at claims "that senior political figures and others sexually abused boys at the Elm Guest House". In the next paragraph of the BBC News article it is stated that the other person arrested as part of the operation is "a 70-year-old man who was arrested in East Sussex"

I knew about this police operation before it happened. I met Tom Watson MP in Parliament so that I could share with him my knowledge of abuse in many children's homes and other locations all over the country. I have been dealing with such cases for the past 18 years. Sadly it has taken Jimmy Savile to re-awaken interest in the subject. Tom used parliamentary privilege to make an announcements in Parliament after hearing that previous police investigations had been "buried" many years ago, particularly because political figures were implicated.

So my question is "Why was the 70 year old man not named?" Is it because he is a well known political figure. There may be a very good explanation, which I have not heard. There have been many other examples of arrested alleged sex offenders not being mentioned in the recent "celebrity" police investigations.

I know that there has been much debate in the past about whether or not alleged sex offenders should enjoy the same anonymity that victims have. It is easy these days to persuade a judge to refer to  the victim of abuse by initials eg AB. At one time it would not have been so easy, but the protection of vulnerable adults, thankfully, is now much higher up the legal and political agenda.

The police, usually, want to announce the name of the arrested individual.  They know that if the abuse took place in an institution that other witnesses can, and often do come forward. It can provide corroborative evidence, which ultimately assists their case. I can remember accused sex offenders advertising for character witnesses, but getting, instead, complainants approaching the police, in a cruel twist of irony.

I remember that when Matthew Kelly, the famous comic actor, was arrested many years ago, he professed his innocence strongly, and objected to being named in the media. There is an argument that if someone is charged, they have not been proved to be guilty, and could, in any future trial, be acquitted. In a pure legal world, judges hate trial by media, and are always concerned that juries will be influenced by what they read in the papers.

So why, in this Operation, have they not named an arrested person? Is it because the police are apprehensive about being sued in slander, or have been so threatened by media lawyers? When will we find out his real name? When he is charged presumably? All this cloak and dagger mystery does nothing, I am afraid to persuade the conspiracy theorists, of which I am certainly not one, that there isn't yet another cover up... or is there....who said I was paranoid.......???

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Kesgrave Hall Boarding School investigated

Lee Woolcott Ellis - one of the victims urged other victims
to come forwards - see here
When I strarted working in the area of child abuse back in 1994, everyone was appalled at how many children's homes were infiltrated with paedophiles, and how much organised abuse had taken place in instituions which were meant to care for children.

Merseyside Police were investigating nearly 90 homes, Greater Manchester 66, and Cheshire a number. 41 out of 43 Police forces had a major abuse investigation in their area. People said that this must be a freak of history, and that it would not last.

Almost every week we hear of a new abuse investigation springing up - Suffolk Police have now launched a new investigation into Kesgrave Hall Boarding School. Read the story in the Guardian -

It appears that a 1992 investigation went nowhere even though several staff were investigated. The Police, with the new "Savile" type initiative, are now having another look at the previous investigation after further complaints have been made. Is it too little, too late, we have to ask.

It is a shame that lack of enthusiasm for abuse which took place years ago on the part of the police has to be rekindled by the investigation of a dead celebrity, who the police will never be able to prosecute, yet have devoted untold resources towards investigating.

One has to sympathise, however, with the task of investigating 30 year old allegations where the alleged abusers are elderly, witnesses difficult to trace, and documents often destroyed.

We have to do this at QualitySolicitors Abney Garsden every day, and it is an uphill battle.