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Not listening then, not listening now

With over 25 years' experience of representing survivors of sexual abuse Frances Swaine discusses why she thinks the ‘establishment’ are still not listening to survivors.

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Frances Swaine is Leigh Day's first managing partner and remains a partner in the human rights department. She specialises in human rights law and is an experienced clinical negligence claims lawyer. Follow Frances on @FrancesSwaine
Twelve years ago, in June 2002, I gave evidence to the home affairs select committee into the conduct of investigations into past cases of child abuse in children’s homes.

The Committee was set up in response to the very large number of accusations of paedophilia in institutions that were being uncovered at the end of the last century.

From this committee hearing came a wide variety of recommendations, which have essentially driven all forms of legal involvement with child abuse since that time.

There were a total of 27 witnesses, and more than 200 written submissions to the committee. To the best of my knowledge no survivor of child abuse was invited to give evidence so these allegations were never heard first hand or, in my opinion, dealt with fully.

Could this not have uncovered Jimmy Savile’s crimes in his lifetime? It is therefore not surprising that these accusations have again come to the public’s attention, some of them against the very most powerful people in the country.

Rightly the government has stepped in to call a proper enquiry – something which will investigate the claims of survivors of childhood abuse. However, to be of any use, survivors of abuse must be listened to and to do this they must feel that they will be in a safe and independent environment.

It is not difficult to imagine how their fears about disclosure stem from the childhood terror of the child who is not believed by the adult, no matter what they say.

As a nation we now have the opportunity to investigate a seemingly sordid state of affairs of persistent abuse of children by those in powerful positions, whether as celebrities or politicians, headmasters or senior civil servants.

But this opportunity is surely about those ‘children’, what they suffered, and where responsibility for any failure to investigate before might lie. The survivors need to be able to trust the investigation, they need to know they will be listened to, considered, and most importantly, believed. That is the only way we are going to be able to assist them now.

The government, in its haste to right those wrongs, has appointed Baroness Butler-Sloss to head up that enquiry.

A former Court of Appeal Judge, with a particular interest in the welfare of the abused whilst she was sitting as a Judge, the appointment may have, hastily seemed perfect. There is no doubting her integrity nor the respect she commanded on the bench.

In the context of today’s enquiry though, she has the misfortune (in this case) to be related to one of those powerful people whose past history she will necessarily have to investigate – to wit, Sir Michael Havers, former Attorney General, her brother.

I would appeal to Baroness Butler-Sloss to see the matter purely from the point of view of the survivors of the abuse, or even perhaps to the families of those who have died from difficulties and problems they struggled with all their lives as a result of abuse in childhood.

They are the ‘children’ who did not give evidence in 2001 – they are the people you will want to hear from now. How can you expect that the innate trust that will be necessary to allow many of these ‘children’ to give evidence to you if you are seen also to have to be looking into what your brother might or might not have done with the evidence.

It actually doesn’t matter if you do the investigation as thoroughly as anyone could. I believe there is the possibility for compromise whatever the outcome from the enquiry, but there is certainly the issue about who you would get to come before you in the first place.

Of course the enquiry will be investigating who knew what, or did what in the corridors of power. But as nation, let us give the survivors themselves something they can believe in , something that will restore some of the self-esteem that was taken from them as youngsters and give them a bit of faith that we, ‘the adults’, do believe them and want to see what can be done to make amends, without their also having to worry about whether or not the establishment have already nobbled the head of the enquiry.

I believe it is not just about ‘justice being done’ but ‘justice being seen to be done’, and that is something which I am quite certain would resonate hard with a very thoughtful and intelligent member of the judiciary such as Baroness Butler-Sloss has previously shown herself to be.

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