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IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Children in the care of Lambeth Council Investigation Report

Contents

J.2: Achieving Best Evidence guidance

2. In order to be successful in the discharge of their responsibilities, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service must engage with child victims and enable them to give their best evidence and accounts of abuse.

3. Achieving Best Evidence guidance was originally drafted and published in January 2002 on behalf of the Home Office, and subsequently updated in 2007 and 2011.[1] The 2011 Achieving Best Evidence guidance sets out good practice when interviewing witnesses and victims, and for preparing them to give their best evidence in court. It considers planning and preparation for interviews, the video-recording of interviews, and the special measures available to support vulnerable witnesses when giving evidence. One special measure is the use of an intermediary, who provides clear guidance about a child’s communication ability and ways to support a child in answering questions. When a case is in court, an intermediary may facilitate communication between a child and any person who is asking questions, including with the answers given by the child in reply.

The evolution of the national approach to investigating child sexual abuse

4. In order to understand the development of investigations by police into child sexual abuse on a national basis, the Inquiry commissioned research by Cardiff University.[2] This identified the following key developments:

  • From 1963, Home Office circulars (which provide advice and guidance for police forces) referred to the need for coordination between police forces and other agencies, including local authorities, in relation to children in need of care, protection and control.[3]
  • By 1988, sexual abuse was included explicitly in the definition of child abuse. Joint working with social services was expected, and the paramount consideration was the welfare of the child.[4]
  • By the end of the 1990s, all forces had child protection units, which normally took primary responsibility for investigating child sexual abuse cases.[5] In 1999, the concept of ‘safeguarding’ entered official usage, and the police were expected to work with other agencies to safeguard and promote the welfare of children.[6]

5. A thematic review by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) in 1999 identified that there was limited guidance for senior investigating officers conducting large and complex investigations. It also stated that there was a lack of preventative and proactive interventions – the majority of child protection unit staff understood their role to be primarily reactive, responding to reports or complaints made by victims.[7]

6. The importance of conducting high-quality investigative interviews with children was recognised by 1999. Researchers also identified:

A long-standing challenge for police investigators is that for many child abuse allegations, a statement by the victim may constitute the only substantive evidence as to what happened. Accordingly, in preparing a case for prosecution, police were expected to provide to the Crown Prosecution Service lawyers an assessment of a child victim’s competency to act as a witness.[8]

7. Researchers identified that not all police officers were completing this task. We note, however, that an obvious pitfall with this task was whether and what information was obtained by the police to complete it. Without detailed, child-specific evidence around communication, there were risks of assumptions being made about a child’s competence and, consequently, their allegations not being heard.

8. From 2000 onwards, a key focus was improving the training of those working in child protection.[9] The police role was no longer understood as solely concerned with the conduct of the criminal investigation but also with considering welfare issues for children.[10]

9. The 2018 report by Cardiff University noted that:

All forces have made the protection of vulnerable people a priority in their area, and there has been an increase in both resources and the attention given to the policing arrangements to achieve this. However, HMIC found a mismatch between stated priorities and practice on the ground. More attention needs to be given to the quality of practice and the outcomes for children of police efforts.[11]

The Metropolitan Police Service

10. In 2016, HMIC inspected Metropolitan Police Service child protection services and made a number of criticisms.

10.1. Individuals and teams were not achieving consistently good results for children in London. Within a sample of child protection cases, 278 of the 374 cases examined demonstrated policing practice that needed improvement or was inadequate.

10.2. Thirty-eight cases were referred back to the Metropolitan Police Service – one had been judged as ‘requires improvement’ and three as ‘inadequate’ by the Metropolitan Police Service itself. However, until prompted by HMIC inspectors, it had taken no action to address the issues it had identified.

10.3. Whilst there were good examples of officers working quickly and effectively to protect children when the risk of harm to them was evident, they frequently failed to consider whether other children might be at risk from the same perpetrator, for example by checking which other young people he or she was in contact with.

10.4. Officers frequently failed to request strategy discussions with all relevant partner agencies, such as children’s social care and health services.[12]

11. The renamed Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) published a series of reports in 2017, 2018 and 2019, monitoring the progress made by the Metropolitan Police Service to improve its practices.

12. In 2018, the inspection found that the Metropolitan Police Service continued to review and refine its structures and systems to manage child protection work.[13] A re-structuring replaced 32 borough operational command units with 12 basic command units, each with a dedicated safeguarding lead. A dedicated inspection team reviewing child protection cases after the 2016 inspection was described by inspectors as a strength. Criticisms, however, included concern about the Metropolitan Police Service response to indecent images of children and online child sexual exploitation, and its management of registered sexual offenders.

13. By 2019, there was appropriate senior-level oversight of child protection. However, there remained significant concerns around achieving outcomes for children. The March 2019 report concluded:

We are assured that there has been, and continues to be, a focus on child protection matters, and that long-term planning is in place. However, we remain concerned about the consistency of decision making and whether children benefit from effective or improved outcomes when they require help and protection from the Metropolitan Police Service.”[14]

14. In oral evidence, Commander Alex Murray (Central Specialist Crime, Metropolitan Police Service) acknowledged the work ahead. He told us:

I think the point made in 2016 and 2018, and I think it is still an issue, is consistently good interventions across the board for children in London. I think we still have some significant challenges in London in relation to that, particularly for more complex cases involving exploitation, county lines, for example; particularly involving missing persons reports; and, as you have highlighted, in relation to sexual offenders as well. We have got some big IT developments, as you would imagine, joining up the systems. They are taking time … I think we still do have some challenges.”[15]

The Crown Prosecution Service

15. The Crown Prosecution Service was established in 1986 to prosecute criminal cases investigated by the police and other investigative organisations in England and Wales. It decides, independently, which cases should be prosecuted, determines the appropriate charges in more serious or complex cases and advises the police during the early stages of investigations. It also provides information, assistance and support to victims and prosecution witnesses.[16]

16. All criminal prosecutions brought by the Crown Prosecution Service are governed by the Code for Crown Prosecutors. The current version was issued in October 2018.[17] The Code provides guidance to prosecutors on the general principles to be applied when making decisions about prosecutions. Prosecutors must only commence a prosecution when the case satisfies the Full Code Test. The Test has two stages:

  • evidential sufficiency: a prosecutor must be satisfied that there is sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction; this is an objective test, based on the prosecutor’s assessment of the evidence (including any information about the defence); and
  • the public interest: having passed the evidential stage, the prosecutor will consider whether a prosecution is required in the public interest.[18]

As Mr Gregor McGill (director of legal services, Crown Prosecution Service) agreed, there is a strong public interest in prosecuting cases of sexual abuse:

It’s a serious offence and there should be a presumption of prosecution unless there are public interest factors weighing against prosecutions more so than in favour of, but those are rare.[19]

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