The ‘I believers’: a law unto themselves
In 2014, an official willingness to believe complainants damaged legal principles.
I can sum up the legal world of 2014 in two words. Many lawyers would understandably tell you, given all the talk of efficiency and cuts, that those words should be ‘legal aid’ – that is, the provision of legal assistance to those who can’t afford it. The endless consultations, judicial reviews, quashed decisions, court walkouts and furrowed legal brows showed that the impending cuts to legal aid carried out by Chris Grayling, the UK secretary of state for justice, were at the forefront of many legal minds. It was also a year in which the practical impact of these cuts began to be felt, with high-profile cases being stopped – albeit temporarily – because of a lack of any proper representation.
But I would choose two different words, two words that I think capture the ethos behind many of the most significant legal developments this year. These words also dominated the public discussion of crime, particularly serious and high-profile allegations, and arguably established certain boundaries for the public discussion of the law in general. I think the two words that capture the dangerous direction in which our legal system is heading are: ‘I believe.’
That’s right, 2014 was a year in which more and more prosecutorial reform was geared towards ‘believing’ complainants rather than investigating allegations with objectivity. In the wider world, publicly proclaiming your belief in the veracity of particularly high-profile allegations around rape and sexual violence became a hallmark of progressive thinking. So it became all the rage in the US to declare ‘I believe Jackie’ when a rape complaint was made – by a woman known as ‘Jackie’ – against a group of students at the University of Virginia. Even when it transpired that the allegation was nonsense, the Washington Post said we should still believe ‘victims’, who are ‘hurt by incredulity’.
In the UK, 2014 was the year in which police officers began publicly declaring their ‘belief’ in allegations before any investigation had even begun. In December, the Metropolitan Police publicly declared that they ‘believed’ the allegation made by a complainant that three young boys had been murdered by a paedophile ring in Westminster. The fact that the police now feel able to declare their ‘belief’ in a complainant making the most serious of allegations, before the complainant’s evidence has been investigated, shows that the mantra of ‘I believe’ is becoming central to the mindset of prosecutors and how they see their own role in the justice system. Why investigate when it is so much easier just to believe?
The mantra of ‘I believe’ also perfectly captures the motivation behind the UK government’s Independent Panel Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, which was established this summer in response to allegations of a paedophile ring at the heart of the British establishment. Never before has objectivity and judicial rigour been so readily shoved aside in deference to the need to believe child-abuse allegations. By November, two prospective chairs for the inquiry had been ditched because of revelations about their associations with the state. In other words, there was a danger the chairs might not say what the ‘survivors’ wanted them to say. The home secretary Theresa May, who has now disbanded the entire inquiry panel following further criticism from the ‘survivors’, constantly reiterated the need to believe, saying that the ‘confidence’ of these self-proclaimed survivors was ‘paramount’. Public inquiries used to be held to restore the confidence of the public in the workings of the state; in 2014 they became a forum for the state to express publicly its ‘belief’ in those it is accused of failing.
The Court of Appeal even adopted the mantra of ‘I believe’ when it ruled in December that vulnerable complainants should be made aware of cross-examination questions in advance, ostensibly to help remove the stress of giving evidence. It seems that even the second highest court in the land is keen to show its belief in a complainant’s evidence without the need to subject it to analysis and interrogation. Cross-examination exposes a complainant to the most rigorous scepticism that logic and common courtesy permit. It is the antithesis of blind belief,and rightly so.
Sadly, the trend towards believing allegations over investigating them is set to continue into 2015. Alongside the ongoing farce of May’s child-abuse inquiry, ex-director of public prosecutions Keir Starmer is set to make an appearance in parliament, having won a Labour Party candidacy in 2014. This was the same Starmer who, as DPP, said he would do away with the ‘combative, adversarial’ nature of our justice system to make the experience easier for victims. Given his recent departure from the Crown Prosecution Service, he is likely to be influential even in a shadow-cabinet position. In an interview this month, he said he had ‘unfinished business’ in the justice department. Expect further reforms to encourage the ‘belief’ in complainants at the expense of traditional safeguards against wrongful prosecution.
2014 was a bad year for the justice system because it was a bad year for truth. In 2015 we should strike back against the drive simply to ‘believe’ at all costs. We should refuse to accept the nonsensical and patronising deference that the police, prosecutorial authorities and even elected politicians have shown towards some complainants. And we should reaffirm the impartial but compassionate search for the truth as a fundamental value of our justice system.
Luke Gittos is law editor at spiked, a solicitor practising criminal law and convenor of the London Legal Salon.