This abuse inquiry was doomed to fail
Public inquiries should be about truth, not giving people ‘closure’.
The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) is in crisis yet again. Over the past seven days, three high-profile members of the legal team have resigned. First, Ben Emmerson QC, who resigned as lead counsel to the inquiry last week, shortly after he was suspended. It was rumoured that Emmerson left due to irreconcilable tensions with the new chair, Professor Alexis Jay. Elizabeth Prochaska resigned shortly after. Then, earlier this week, Abigail Bright followed. This follows the resignation of the IICSA’s old chair, Lowell Goddard, two months ago.
Criticism of the inquiry has been growing since Goddard’s departure. It is now broadly accepted that its remit, which anticipates an investigation into 13 separate areas of public life, is impossibly wide. Before her departure, Goddard suggested it could run for over 10 years. Senior lawyer David Pannick QC remarked that the IICSA was ‘obviously unmanageable when it was set up’, and that ‘everything that has happened since has confirmed that’. So far, £14.7million has been spent, and it has achieved close to nothing. This includes £3million in lawyers’ bills, racked up before any formal investigation had even begun.
Pannick is right to say this inquiry was doomed from the outset. But there is an important lesson to be learned here, one which almost everyone involved is ignoring. Its remit was broad because it was established solely to satisfy the emotional needs of ‘survivors’ – the term used for those making complaints. Public inquiries that abandon the aspiration to objectivity and impartiality will inevitably unravel. Allowing particular interest groups to yield disproportionate influence over an investigation is a recipe for disaster.
The IICSA was established in 2014 by Theresa May, then home secretary. She remarked at the time that survivors should be placed ‘at the heart’ of the inquiry. She reiterated this last week, saying the IICSA ‘owed it’ to survivors to get the investigation underway. Survivors were extensively consulted over the inquiry’s terms of reference. They were instrumental in the resignations of the first two chairs, Baroness Butler-Sloss and Fiona Woolf, who, despite being highly qualified, were rejected over their alleged ‘ties to the establishment’. This was an early indication that the emotional responses of survivors were being prized above all else.
Survivors were invited to make initial complaints through the IICSA’s website, and then later through its ‘Truth Project’. This meant they could make allegations without being cross-examined. Indeed, the early adoption of the term ‘survivors’ by the inquiry showed that the truth of the allegations would be assumed rather than investigated. This subtle but significant bending of the normal rules suggested the inquiry would be unlikely to achieve far-reaching reform. These bizarre modes of giving evidence may have given survivors the impression they were being taken seriously, but, by shielding complainants from scrutiny, the inquiry became little more than a judicially sanctioned echo chamber.
Considering the IICSA was set up to remedy perceived failings in the justice system, this is pretty shameful. Many of those who made complaints to the inquiry feel genuinely let down by the system and want closure. But a public inquiry is ill-suited to deliver this. The necessity for impartiality and objectivity means that people’s immediate desires have to be frustrated in order for an inquiry to be fair. The ‘survivors’ the IICSA was set up to help were given unrealistic expectations about what could be achieved.
The IICSA has been a spectacular failure. The lesson we can learn is that public inquiries cannot be built around the emotional demands of interest groups – they must aspire to independence and impartiality. The IICSA should be scrapped.
Luke Gittos is law editor at spiked, a solicitor practicing criminal law and convenor of the London Legal Salon. He is the author of Why Rape Culture is a Dangerous Myth: From Steubenville to Ched Evans. Why Rape Culture is a Dangerous Myth: From Steubenville to Ched Evans. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)