Opinion - No system is perfect

Charles Graham
Charles Graham
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THE trials of Dave Lee Travis and William Roache have shone a light on all manner of weaknesses in the British legal system’s prosecution of sex offences.

And while everyone has forthright opinions on the nature and practices of investigations and allegations - particularly those involving celebrities, and particularly those from decades ago - the only conclusion I have drawn so far is that no system is perfect.

There isn’t a country in the world that has found an ideal, and sadly there will always be innocent casualties and cases when the guilty go free or, less commonly, when the blameless are jailed.

Yes, the Roache and Travis court cases came about in the wake of Savile. Whether there has been a “witch hunt” as some have claimed, is not necessarily so.

I am inclined to think that the authorities, already battered by the media and public for failing to nail the abhorrent Jim’ll Fix It star during his lifetime, resolved to atone not by finding scapegoats but by righting other wrongs from the last 40 years.

That the two stars above were found innocent (Travis may yet face a retrial for two of the 14 allegations of molestation against him) does not automatically mean that matters should never have got to court.

The sheer quantity of independent complainants, no matter how flimsy the corroborating evidence from each woman but for their personal statements, obliged the police and CPS to explore the claims to the limit.

An elderly female relative of mine is convinced that a lot of the “victims” who have been coming forward, whether it be making allegations against Roache, Travis, Jim Davidson (the claims against him never got to court, thus proving there is discrimination exercised by the CPS), have been in it for the money. Quite a few people I have spoken to (mainly women, I was surprised to discover) also reckon that those who claim they were groped through their clothing years ago should have just let things lie and “get over it.” There are, quite rightly, no such disagreements about allegations of the more serious sexual crimes.

Personally I reserve judgement on those claims about the lesser offences.

There can be a wide variety of reactions to behaviour verging on or exceeding the inappropriate, many of them equally valid. Sometimes it comes down to whether the “victim” is at a social disadvantage to the “abuser.”

When I was at university halls in the mid-1980s I was standing in the dinner queue when a girl who I barely knew, didn’t fancy but seemed OK and a bit of a laugh came up behind me and grabbed me quite firmly on the backside and walked on wordlessley with a grin on her face.

Initial surprise was followed by other feelings including mild confusion. It wasn’t anything I would have done to a near stranger. But despite having my space invaded this teen felt jokily flattered more than anything.

Now please don’t for one moment think that this in any way is a green flag for groping. I am perfectly well aware that in similar circumstances other folk would be upset or disgusted at such conduct and would well be within their rights to be so.

That those distressed by similar contact 30 years ago or more were less likely to complain does, however, raise questions about the authorities’ treatment of historical allegations made on the lines of the Travis inquiry though.

Rape, other forms of serious sexual assault and paedophilia have always been prosecuted in the courts. A generation or so ago, groping generally wasn’t.

That’s not to say it shouldn’t have been. It just wasn’t.

Some poor woman being pawed during the unwanted advances of an older man in a position of dominance was, sad to say, grimly tolerated or dealt with through a well-deserved knee to the groin.

Setting Travis’s guilt or innocence aside for one moment, does one now prosecute historical offences which the law and society have only recently come to realise are socially and legally intolerable?

Back in the 1970s it was acceptable for teachers to thrash a child black and blue with a stick. Police were also inclined to turn a blind eye to blatant drink-driving. A lot of television comedy shows of the ‘70s were out and out racist.

For all the 21st century’s faults, we are better people for now despising those once-condoned offences and attitudes. But if we are trying to accuse people of inappropriate gropes from 40 years ago, should we also be hauling retired teachers, once-boozy drivers and out-of-favour comedians into the dock too? Or do we draw a line under those unpleasant behaviours and, if we are determined to right historic wrongs, then concentrate on those which have always been reviled?

Another issue which has come to the fore again in the aftermath of these celebrity cases, is the accused’s right to anonymity.

I have always advocated this. If the alleged victim is given this unique right among crime complainants then it should be afforded to the other party too. Especially as the reason given for protecting the victim is the humiliation and shame they might suffer while describing such intimate crimes.

Well that’s nothing compared to the humiliation and damage done to someone wrongly accused of such offences. And let’s not forget a tenet of our law is innocent until proven guilty.

A persuasive argument in favour of naming sex crime suspects is that it heightens the likelihood of other complainants coming forward and thereby strengthens the chances of a conviction in a notoriously difficult area in which to find guilt.

And yet women were queuing up to make allegations against both Roache and Travis and still convictions were not secured.

There have been suggestions that because so many sex offenders must be getting away with it, that the threshold for finding guilt should be lowered. But that flies in the face of British justice. It is for a jury to convict someone only if their guilt has been proved “beyond all reasonable doubt.”

Lose that principle and our imperfect system becomes far more imperfect.

I have no doubt that at the end of all these celebrity trials, some of the accused will have avoided getting their just desserts. Others will have got everything they deserved.

And others, possibly completely innocent, will have walked free. But unless a judge takes the unusual step of saying there should be no stain on their character, they will have the cloud of suspicion over their heads for the rest of their lives, because the law chose to identify them before the verdict.

Whatever changes that might be introduced post-Operation Yewtree, the legal system’s investigation and prosecution of sex crime allegations will continue to deliver more unsatisfactory results than any other offences. It’s a sad fact of life.