Law,  UK Politics

Theresa May’s Politically Driven Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse is heading for disaster

This is a cross-post from Barrister Blogger by Matthew Scott

The problem of who should chair the proposed inquiry into the handling of child sexual abuse by public bodies in past decades has, after some delay, been solved.

Many other problems remain.

Home Secretary Theresa May has announced that it is to be chaired by Fiona Woolf, the current Lord Mayor of London, assisted by Graham Wilmer MBE and Barbara Hearn OBE. Alexis Jay, the author of the recent inquiry into Rotheram Council is to act as an expert adviser to the panel.

The precise terms of reference have yet to be announced but the overall purpose of the inquiry, as set out by the Home Secretary is:

“To consider whether public bodies – and other non-state institutions – have taken seriously their duty of care to protect children from sexual abuse. “

The original choice to lead the inquiry was, as readers will remember, Lady Butler-Sloss, a highly respected, retired Appeal Court judge with huge experience of family law. On paper she was an ideal appointment. Unfortunately, she was also compromised because her own brother, former Attorney-General Michael Havers, had been accused by some of being involved in a “cover up” of high profile paedophiles, one of the very issues that the inquiry was being established to investigate. After a little consideration she realised that this put her in an impossible position:

“It has become apparent over the last few days … that there is a widespread perception, particularly among victim and survivor groups, that I am not the right person to chair the inquiry. It has also become clear to me that I did not sufficiently consider whether my background and the fact my brother had been attorney general would cause difficulties.”

Theresa May therefore needed to find a replacement.

The obvious choice would have been another senior judge. Precedents might have been Lord Scarman’s inquiry into the Brixton riots in 1981 Lord Woolf’s (as far as I know no relation of Fiona’s) inquiry into the 1990 Strangeways Prison riots, or Sir William MacPherson’s inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence. An obvious candidate might have been Lady Justice Hallett, whose handling of the 7/7 inquests was widely thought to have been exemplary.

Nevertheless, by no means all major inquiries have been chaired by judges. The impressive inquiry into the 1988 Kings Cross Fire, for example was admirably chaired by a senior Queen’s Counsel, Desmond Fennell. There have been calls for the left-wing firebrand Michael Mansfield QC to be given the task of investigating child abuse, although for all his undoubted advocacy skills he would have been an astonishing and divisive appointment.

In the absence of a Senior Judge or Queen’s Counsel the next obvious place to look would have been amongst the ranks of the Crown Court judges. There are hundreds to chose from, many have considerable experience of sexual offences from their days in practice and many have what are colloquially and rather awkwardly called “sex tickets,” because their special training and expertise qualifies them to try allegations of a sexual nature. It is always invidious to single out individuals because that might imply that others would not have been equally well-qualified, but two prime candidates could have been Peter Rook QC, a highly experienced Old Bailey judge and co-author of the magisterial Rook and Ward on Sexual Offences (affectionately known to practitioners as “Rookie on Nookie”), or Susan Evans QC, a Bristol judge and former barrister from my own Pump Court Chambers who made her reputation at the bar both prosecuting and defending child abuse cases across the South of England.

No doubt Ms May also looked at the family judges, many of whom, like their Crown Court colleagues, are well used to dealing with allegations of sexual abuse.

Instead the task has been given to someone who absolutely nobody expected. The Chairman (and yes, Theresa May does call her the Chairman) of the Inquiry is to be 66 year old solicitor Fiona Woolf, currently Lord Mayor of London.

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