Last week the House of Commons held a debate about the work of the Crown Prosecution Service, specifically, the impact of cutbacks on its work. Perhaps predictably, some MPs deplored the impact of delays in the criminal justice system on victims and witnesses.
Of course, delay also impacts terribly on accused persons, some of whom, as the MP for Neath acknowledged, may be victims of spurious charges or allegations. In Hansard’s record of the debate, the word ‘victim’ appears 54 times, and the word ‘defendants’ appears three times.
Teresa Pearce, the Labour MP who opened the debate, described victims and witnesses as ‘the most vulnerable participants in the criminal justice system’. Interestingly, the very same day the BBC reported the Prison Trust’s findings that, while fewer than 1% of children and young people are in the care of local authorities, a third of boys and 61% of girls in custody either are in care, or have been.
This debate would not have made national headlines, were it not for the intervention of Simon Danczuk, Labour MP for Rochdale. Danczuk is a moral crusader. Like the late Geoffrey Dickens MP, he has gained fame, if not notoriety, for his relentless campaigning on the issue of child abuse. Danczuk had been on Channel 4 News only the day before, promoting his views of a particular case concerning the 86-year old Labour peer, Lord Janner.
Danczuk had told C4 that historic allegations of child abuse against Janner were ‘stomach-churning’. In April 2015, the DPP had declined to prosecute Janner, who has dementia and was considered unfit to plead. Danczuk and other MPs had signed a letter calling for her to change her decision. The DPP had sent the file to a QC for review, but his advice was as yet unknown.
In his C4 interview, Danczuk called for Janner’s expulsion from the Labour Party:
‘The allegations are that serious that they should carry out a short, sharp investigation which I am sure would conclude that he should be expelled from the party.’
When Danczuk stood up to address the House of Commons, he complained that the CPS had failed to prosecute child sex abuse in the past. He went on:
‘These failures are not just a thing of the past. The case of Lord Janner is an interesting case study…’
The Conservative MP Anne Main, who chaired the debate, cautioned him against discussing the case of Janner in detail. She made clear that the constitutional proprieties had to be observed. As Janner had not been charged, the matter was not technically sub iudice. But another rule applied. This says that MPs must not discuss members of the House of Lords, save on a substantive motion. Ignoring her, Danczuk did discuss Janner’s case in inflammatory terms:
‘Returning to the case of Lord Janner, the shocking thing is that the CPS admits that the witnesses are not unreliable. It admits that Janner should face prosecution, but refuses to bring a case. I know the police are furious about this, and rightly so. Anyone who has heard the accusations would be similarly outraged. I have met Leicestershire police and discussed the allegations in some detail: children being violated, raped and tortured, some in the very building in which we now sit.’
Then he read out the draft charges, and said:
‘My office has spoken to a number of the alleged victims and heard their stories. I cannot overstate the effect that this abuse has had on their lives….. why not conduct a trial of the facts? This would allow the victims to tell their stories and gain some sense of justice. The DPP has said that a trial of the facts would not be in the public interest. Personally, I fail to see how the knowledge that a peer of the realm is a serial child abuser is not in the public interest [my italics].’
Note how Danczuk pre-empts the outcome of any putative fact-finding exercise in that last sentence.
The chair then feebly intervened, saying: ‘Order. I caution the hon. Gentleman about alleging anything against Lord Janner and making assertions about his guilt or innocence.’
But the damage was done.
Ignoring her again, Danczuk said:
‘The failure to prosecute Lord Janner offends every principle of justice. He may not abuse again, but the legacy of the abuse continues. His victims need the truth and they need to be heard [my italics].’
Within 20 minutes of the debate closing, the Daily Mail had the story. The Telegraph followed shortly afterwards: ‘Labour peer Lord Janner of Braunstone is a “serial child abuser” who “violated, raped and tortured” children in the Houses of Parliament, an MP has said.’ The Mirror ran the story that evening. Other news outlets ran it the next day.
By June 26th, the QC’s review of the DPP’s decision not to prosecute Janner was leaked. The word on social media was that Janner would be tried. On Monday 29th June, the CPS formally announced a volte-face, albeit without explaining what had changed. Echoing Danczuk’s closing words, the DPP gave as her justification the complainants’ ‘need to be heard’.
The inference is plain that the DPP caved in to Danczuk’s demands. This creates the impression of a prosecution service that is weak, and lacking in self-confidence. But it’s worse than that. Danczuk deliberately exceeded the responsibility, which his Parliamentary privilege imposed on him.
The common law grants freedom of speech in Parliamentary proceedings, coupled with immunity from suit. But Danczuk misused this to drive a coach and horses through the presumption of innocence, and the principle of due process. The object of his crusade is an old man who was not even deemed fit for police interview.
To Danczuk, accusations of child sex abuse equates with proof of guilt. The separation of powers seems to have become a dead letter: our criminal justice system is in thrall to demagoguery. In this febrile atmosphere, Stalinist show trials are the order of the day in Great Britain.
Barbara is a barrister practising at 1 Gray's Inn Square. She specialises in public and administrative law; human rights & civil liberties; and professional discipline and regulatory law. Her practice includes mental capacity and court of protection work, judicial review, inquests, healthcare law, professional discipline and employment law.