Sunday, September 14, 2008

Possibly guilty till proven innocent

Allegations of abuse of children by adults whose job involves interactions with children are serious - few would question this. They give good reason to investigate, and if there is sufficient evidence, take disciplinary action in terms of employment at the very least, and if necessary lay a complaint with the Police.

However, the flipside of child abuse is the damage caused to those accused of child abuse. Accusations are often difficult to conclusively disprove and paint a dark aura around a person, "perhaps he did it", "wonder if there are others", people don't trust their children around the accused. The abuse of an adult of the physical, emotional and intellectual power over a child makes most people shiver.

So the basic maxim of the English Common Law criminal burden of proof is that you are innocent till proven guilty. It being better that 10 guilty people go free than 1 innocent be condemned. Sadly this fundamental principle is now being somewhat eroded in the UK.

You see, Ian Huntley, the murderer of Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells, had been a suspect in several sex offences. In one case he had been charged, but there had been insufficient evidence for a conviction. So he retained his job as a school caretaker. He had been, until his conviction of the killing of those two girls, innocent till proven guilty. Information about these allegations had not been retained.

So now according to the Daily Telegraph (no link), local authorities need to set up databases to contain ALL allegations of child abuse of those working with children, until either the person retires or the individual proves innocence. Suspicious till proven innocent.

The claims can be made anonymously, but there need not be a charge, let alone conviction.

Furthermore, the cases will all have to be investigated by local authority officers - yes that bastion of competence, and must find a claim is either "substantiated", "unsubstantiated", "unfounded" or "malicious". The latter two can only be found if there is evidence disproving the allegation. So the odds are that many cases will reside in the "unsubstantiated" category - neither guilty, nor innocent.

Of course this hardly helps the innocent. The innocent have a file suggesting there is an unsubstantiated claim, which naturally puts that innocent person at a disadvantage compared to one without a claim. Nice that. So you are definitely not presumed innocent.

So who wants to make a false allegation? Think of the incentives. That estranged wife or girlfriend, or the disgruntled student, can make an allegation knowing it will make the accused's life hell, and never be accountable for it - never having to appear in court to be cross examined.

Instead local government investigates allegations and unless you can prove your innocence, they remain on a file, able to be searched by employers, for the rest of your life. It appears that the UK public policy response to a horrendous crime is to erode the rights of the innocent - because after all, the safest country is the one under constant surveillance.

So it continues, until the next person not on any database murders some kids, and another way of monitoring the innocent will be found - and none of the political parties gives a damn.

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