Miscarriage of justice?

Campaigners claim that former staff in
children’s homes are being convicted of crimes involving the abuse
of children that they did not commit. Rachel Downey reports.

Three weeks ago former care worker Roy
Shuttleworth left prison after spending five-and-a-half years
behind bars for abusing children. Throughout his sentence he
maintained he did not commit the crimes of which he was

He is not the only one protesting his
innocence after being convicted of abuse carried out in
institutions. Derek Brushett, Mike Lawson, Barry Strettle and Brian
Ely all claim they did not abuse. Campaigners claim that about 25
men are serving, or have completed, prison terms for crimes they
did not commit.

Since allegations of abuse at children’s homes
in north Wales first emerged in 1993, hundreds of staff in
children’s homes have been arrested, charged, acquitted or
convicted of abuse, both sexual and physical. Police officers have
interviewed thousands of former residents and at least 200 former
staff have been convicted. An Association of Chief Police Officers
(Acpo) survey covering 1997 to 1999 found that 32 forces had held,
or were involved in, 96 investigations. A total of 5,616 victims
were identified. These led to 543 arrests, 193 successful
prosecutions and 40 acquittals.

Campaign groups have formed to support
individuals. Members point to the risks involved in prosecuting
historic abuse cases and the potential for wrongful convictions.
There is no forensic evidence and convictions are dependent on
complainants’ testimony. Prosecutions are notoriously difficult to
obtain in these cases and the police and courts rely on “similar
fact” evidence, whereby if more than one person makes the same
accusations, without other evidence, a person can be convicted.
Campaigners maintain that the police have used unethical trawling
methods to find witnesses. They believe that former care home
residents have lied about their experiences to obtain compensation

Solicitor Chris Saltrese spends about 60 per
cent of his time representing former care home staff who claim they
have been wrongly accused of abuse. He has a personal interest in
these cases, as his father ran a former care home in Merseyside
that was investigated as part of one of the large institutional
abuse inquiries – Cheshire Police’s Operation Granite.

“These investigations have led to the greatest
miscarriages of justice in British legal history,” he says. “Care
workers are being sent to prison for something they have not done.
Every month someone gets 10 to 15 years.” He estimates that between
30 and 40 wrongful convictions have been made following the
inquiries in north Wales, Cheshire and Merseyside.

Saltrese believes juries are overwhelmed by
the fact that in most cases there are a number of complainants
saying they were abused by one worker and are therefore unable to
deliver correct verdicts. “These cases do not bear any scrutiny –
people are being convicted because they are facing evidence from
many complainants. The evidence by itself is very weak, but the
juries believe there is no smoke without fire.”

In many historic cases of abuse one care
worker in a home has pleaded guilty. Juries read about the
conviction or guilty plea in one establishment and then assume
former colleagues were also involved. It is extremely difficult for
both juries and the police to accept that children were being
abused without care workers knowing.

“It’s impossible for anyone accused by more
than one person to be found not guilty because juries cannot cope
with it,” says Rory O’Brien, chairperson of campaign group Falsely
Accused Carers and Teachers (Fact). “Juries believe they can’t all
make it up.” O’Brien was convicted of abuse but freed on appeal
after spending just seven weeks in prison. “The police – and I
understand why – are hoping they will get more allegations during
the investigation. But there’s a crusading element by the senior
investigating officers. And the longer the investigation runs, the
more expensive it is, and the more they have to justify it.”

But why would a former resident lie? Financial
compensation is key, according to Saltrese. “The vast majority of
false allegations are prompted by the desire for undeserved
compensation. I don’t blame them for making a buck.” He estimates
the average pay out in the north Wales cases was between
£80,000 and £90,000. Then there are further, smaller
payments from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority. The
largest award via the courts was £94,000 to a young man who
was abused by two men – one was deputy head teacher Peter Howarth,
who was sentenced to 10 years for abuse at the Bryn Estyn care home
in north Wales.

“Former residents do not only make false
allegations to obtain compensation,” says Saltrese. “There are
others suffering from psychological illness or bearing a grudge –
the main targets are head teachers in approved schools, as they
were allowed to use a cane.” O’Brien believes many complainants are
confused and genuinely believe they were abused by the defendant
when it was someone else.

Concerns over convictions have led to action
in the Houses of Parliament. An all-party group on false
allegations, with a wider remit than just examining institutional
abuse, was formed last year. In January the home affairs select
committee launched an inquiry into the investigations of past cases
of abuse in children’s homes, including possible miscarriages of
justice. It will examine the police methods of “trawling” for
evidence and whether these are a disproportionate use of resources
and produce unreliable evidence for prosecution, whether the Crown
Prosecution Service is drawing a sensible line about which cases
should be prosecuted, whether there should be time limits on making
allegations, whether compensation awards encourage people to make
false allegations, and the use of “similar fact” evidence.

Announcing the inquiry, committee chairperson
Chris Mullin, who was a leading campaigner for the release of the
Birmingham Six, explained why the committee had decided on this
review: “It has been suggested that a whole new genre of
miscarriages of justice has arisen from the over-enthusiastic
pursuit of allegations about abuse of children in institutions many
years ago.”

The police have already begun to react to the
growing concerns. Discussions last year between the Home Office,
Acpo and the Police Inspectorate “about what more can be done to
ensure that the procedures in place for conducting these very
difficult investigations are fair and robust” resulted in a new
manual for senior investigating officers, which covers tracing
potential witnesses and obtaining corroborative evidence. And new
guidance for police and social services on how to conduct complex
abuse investigations is imminent. Such guidance was recommended by
the Waterhouse inquiry report into children’s homes in north Wales
but has become imperative because of the growing concerns about the
possibility of wrongful convictions.

A week before the select committee inquiry
announcement, the police established a new UK-wide research team to
improve their investigation of these difficult cases. Terry Grange,
chief constable of Dyfed Powys police and spokesperson for Acpo on
sexual crime, set up the unit. He admits that although there is a
lengthy and robust process before someone is convicted, some of the
inquiries into abuse at care homes could have made mistakes and
some of those who have been jailed could have been innocent.

But the inquiry has come too late for Terry
Hoskin, a head teacher at the former approved school St Aidan’s in
Widnes, Cheshire, who has served just over four years in prison for
crimes he claims he did not commit. He was sentenced to eight years
after being convicted of 12 counts of assault causing actual bodily
harm, eight of indecent assault and one of buggery. His appeal was
turned down in November 1999. His initial request for parole was
turned down – he had refused to go on the sex offenders programme.
But just after his parole was refused, his lawyer Chris Saltrese
sent in letters of support and two weeks later parole was granted.
Just before his trial, Colin Dick, a housemaster whom he had
appointed, had pleaded guilty to indecency and received a five-year
sentence. One of the men who made complaints against Dick also made
a complaint against Hoskin and this, says Hoskin, was brought into
his trial. He struggles to answer why 19 men made allegations
against him. “I do not believe every single person was motivated by
compensation. Some were. I’m damn sure some were. I think the
othersÉ I do not know. They appreciated the attention. They
were quite pleased to have a reasonable relationship with a couple
of policemen who would go and see them. Some were seeking revenge

“I’m not bitter towards them. They were
rogues, vagabonds, twisters, 25 years ago. I’m more annoyed that it
wasn’t obvious to any reasonable individual they were lying. They
didn’t all sit down in a room and say ‘this is the plan’. The
investigation is the collusion.”

However, the police are robust in their
defence. They argue that only a small percentage of child abusers
are caught, that it is very difficult to obtain convictions in
historic abuse cases, and that the process from arrest to trial
contains many safeguards for the defendant. Nine out of 10
investigations are discontinued at an early stage. The Acpo survey
shows that between 1997 and 1999, the CPS took no further action in
940 of the 1,197 referrals made by the police.

In its submission to the home affairs select
committee inquiry, Acpo states: “No allegation is taken at face
value and all are thoroughly investigated and the account probed to
gain all available evidence to corroborate it. Despite claims to
the contrary, many of the apparent victims and witnesses are
neither career criminals nor seeking compensation, as court records
would testify. To date from all the institutional abuse enquiries
there are two known cases of fabricated allegations; both
individuals were prosecuted.”

Acpo says the policy on compensation is clear
– officers will not raise the issue. Where the apparent victim
raises it, the police will disclose this to the CPS. And the list
of those who seek Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority
compensation is disclosed to the defence.

Peter Garsden, who is co-ordinating the
compensation claims in the north west, describes the home affairs
select committee inquiry as “a waste of public money”. He says:
“Child abuse is no different in terms of false allegations.
Statistically there must be false allegations but I have no direct
evidence that people are telling lies. That’s not to say that we
should not leave the courts to weed out the liars. There’s no need
to have a select committee to push its nose into the running of the

Garsden maintains there is no incentive for
former residents to make false allegations. Those who have been
abused take great risks in becoming witnesses in trials and some
end up turning to drugs or self-harm. They risk isolation from
their families, some of whom believe abused people are bound to
become abusers. They are ashamed because of the suggestion they are
homosexual, particularly if they are in prison, he says. And the
financial rewards are not large compared with medical negligence

“You may get some hysterical policeman trying
to push cases through” but there are plenty of safeguards before
and after a defendant is convicted, he says. “I have difficulty
believing that this is anything other than the clever manipulation
of MPs by a group of rightly convicted, well-orchestrated

Ascertaining what actually took place in
isolated institutions decades ago is a difficult task. Discovering
whether mistakes have been made and innocent men imprisoned is even
more difficult – a fact Chris Mullin acknowledged when announcing
the home affairs select committee’s inquiry: “We shall be looking
at the methods by which convictions have been achieved and whether
there were adequate safeguards. We shall bear in mind, however,
that people convicted of sexually abusing children are more likely
to continue protesting their innocence than any other category of

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