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Justice on Trial

Volume 16, Issue 2  | 
Published 06/11/2019
Ramnik Shah

Ramnik Shah, born in Kenya, practiced law in Nairobi from 1964 to ’74 and then for the next 30 years in England, where since retirement he has been engaged in academic research and writing on migration and diaspora related subjects and general literature. His first book ‘Empire’s Child’ has just been published.


London Calling by Ramnik Shah

The British criminal justice system is in dire straits and in need of radical reform. This does not, let me hasten to say, apply to the fundamentals of the finest traditions of English law, independence of the judiciary, professional excellence of the judges and lawyers, and of the legal institutions generally – all of which were extolled to us as subjects of the former British Empire and which formed part of Kenya`s colonial inheritance.

No, what I am talking about here is the working of the system (in the criminal sphere) in practice in a number of areas. Currently the most concerning is a recent spate of cases involving high profile individuals wrongly accused of heinous crimes that have exposed serious wrongdoing or at least questionable conduct on the part of the authorities.  These have been characterised by excessive police zeal in terms of overindulgence of complainants and demonization of suspects, and even failure of the prosecution service to evaluate the evidence objectively, fuelling intense media speculation and suggestion of guilt by innuendo of the unfortunate accused.

The cases of the singer Sir Cliff Richard and broadcaster Paul Gambaccini are too well known to need much elaboration.  Each of them was falsely accused, circa 2013/14, of historical sexual crimes and kept in suspense for a long time before being cleared. The point is that they had never been charged and their names should not have been brought into the public domain. It was the police`s mishandling of the allegations against them that had led to such unwarranted disclosure.

In Richard`s case, they had tipped off the BBC about a raid on his home in 2014, which was filmed and the footage broadcast live to millions of viewers.  It was not until 2016 that the police confirmed that they had found nothing incriminating and he would not be charged.  Gambaccini, a senior BBC presenter, was also falsely accused of historical sexual crimes in 2013 and had to endure the agony of the situation for nearly twelve months before being told that no charges would be laid against him.

So yes, the police, the crown prosecution service and the culpable media organisations have had to pay very substantial damages by way of compensation for all the reputational damage, mental stress and material losses suffered by them but of course they are still left with deep psychological scars of the whole trauma for the rest of their lives.

Hardly had the dust settled on the Cliff Richard and Paul Gambaccini cases - and the ensuing renewed debate on whether legislation was needed to ensure anonymity for those suspected of crimes, more specifically a law preventing the media from naming suspects before they are formally charged with rape or any other serious offence - when another, even more sensational, burst in on the national scene, namely that of Carl Beech, which again brought to the fore all the fallout from the earlier appalling excesses and failures of the police and prosecuting authorities.

This time what came out was shocking beyond belief. Beech, masquerading as `Nick`, had made what eventually turned out to be fantastical claims of kidnapping, torture, homosexual rape and other forms of abuse, and even murder, in the late 1970s and early `80s against a number of the most respectable and top ranking retired or dead members of the British ruling class - politicians, generals and spy chiefs - collectively dubbed a “gang of abusers” or a “VIP paedophile ring”.  These included, among others, the former Prime Minister Edward Heath, a prominent former Conservative MP Harvey Proctor, the former Home Secretary (Lord) Leon Brittan, and the former chief of the defence staff Field Marshall Lord Bramall. 

This was happening during the same period, 2014-16, as the Richard and Gambaccini cases, against the background of the scandal involving the late Jimmy Saville whose horrendous past sexual misdemeanours had remained under the radar for decades. There was an atmosphere of paranoia all around, amid claims of establishment cover-ups, calls for national inquiries into child abuse and rumours about which other famous public figure would be revealed as a sexual pervert.  The difference this time was that too much reliance was placed on Beech`s wholly fanciful allegations.  These were treated - at an early stage of the police investigation that cost £2.5 million and lasted two years - as `credible and true`, without a scintilla of confirmatory evidence. 

It led to police raids on the homes of many of the alleged suspects in humiliating circumstances. Their stories are now matters of public record. Both Lord Bramall and Harvey Proctor have recounted in detail the effect all this has had on their lives.  Lord Bramall, a World War II veteran, was 91 at the time and had to witness the spectacle of the police ransacking their possessions in the presence of his wife who was then gravely ill with dementia (and was later to die without knowing that he had been cleared).  He was also questioned under caution, as was Harvey Proctor, who lost both his job and job-related home as a result of police pressure on his employer, the Duke of Rutland. Leon Brittan too had to face false allegations and smears against him while desperately ill and was to die without knowing that he had been cleared.

What had developed, post-Saville, was a police culture of regarding complainants as `victims` and accepting their accounts at face value, without a full or proper examination. 

This approach has been criticised as wholly wrong by a retired High Court judge, Sir Richard Henriques, who was appointed to review the police investigation into Beech`s allegations, because according to him it is the exact opposite of the principle of presumption of innocence of those who are accused.  The complainant can only rightly be termed a victim when the guilt of the accused is proven.    

What emerged subsequently was that Carl Beech was a liar, a paedophile himself and had fraudulently obtained compensation for his own false claims of sexual abuse.  But the law finally caught up with him and on July 26, aged 51, he was convicted after a ten day trial on 12 counts of perverting the course of justice and one of fraud, and sentenced to 18 years imprisonment.  Not surprisingly, the real `victims` of this whole sorry saga have been the likes of Lord Bramall, Harvey Proctor and the widow of Leon Brittan who have spoken out in painful detail about the impact of the police enquiries and the accompanying publicity on their morale in their old age.  Lord Bramall and Lady Brittan like Cliff Richard and Paul Gambaccini, have had to go through costly legal processes to obtain compensation but so far only the claims of Lord Bramall and Lady Brittan have been settled, while that of Harvey Proctor is for some reason being contested and he is having to pursue the police with much bitterness. 

But where does that leave the police?  You would think they would be ashamed or at least embarrassed about not having probed Beech`s antecedents robustly enough before jumping to conclusions about the guilt of the innocent accused and hounding them to the extent they did.  Not at all; on the contrary, on the very next day after Beech was sentenced, the deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police (Met) declared its conduct in respect of the searches of the Bramall, Brittan and Proctor homes to have been exemplary and “in good faith”.  How so?  Because the so-called Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) had previously so concluded, and yet the IOPC had interviewed none of the leading police officers involved.  And according to Sir Richard Henriques, tasked to carry out a review of Operation Midland (code name for the main police investigation into Beech`s allegations) by the then head of the Met, he was not supplied with the search warrant applications for those searches, nor were they even included in the list of `relevant documents` sent to him.  Henriques has since publicly raised doubts about the legality of the applications in question.

 And what has happened to the several police officers involved in the Beech case?  At least three of them were allowed to retire while still under IOPC investigation (in effect going `scot free`!); one of them had even been promoted earlier to a higher position and, most of all, the man in charge of Operation Midland whose conduct in particular has received much critical scrutiny has become director-general of operations at the National Crime Agency! 

So there can be little doubt that the public`s trust in the police has been shaken by the Carl Beech case, with echoes of what had happened to Cliff Richard and Paul Gambaccini, but the political reaction to it has been somewhat muted.  That may be because of the triple coincidence of a change of Prime Minister, Parliament going into recess and the country being  preoccupied with Brexit and also because now it is the height of the summer holiday season.  Even so, the new Home Secretary Priti Patel has asked for a written explanation from the IOPC as to why no police officers will face disciplinary charges over the false VIP abuse claims. 

That is yet to come but here is my verdict: the police are a law unto themselves and will get away with it, as they always do – there are countless examples of this, especially when black men die in police custody or are mistreated otherwise - and their watchdog body almost invariably protects them – police accountability is a myth - that is the establishment at work – it happens in Kenya and the USA too!  Even so, we must wait for the last word on the matter.

On another front, police forces all across the country have adopted a uniform policy of conducting what have been critically described as “digital strip searches” of women in rape cases. What happens is that when they first report or complain about rape, they are asked to sign forms allowing the police to have access to their phones, computers and digital watches. This would enable the police to trawl through their call records, text messages, emails, contact lists, apps and internet use so that they may find out what, if any, connection or communications the complainant  may have had with the alleged perpetrator of the rape as that might have a bearing on the nature of their relationship and any consent factor. If the complainants refuse to give consent, then the investigation stalls. But the advocates for women`s rights are up in arms about such a  wide-ranging, arbitrary and intrusive fishing exercise in effect, because  that would expose their private lives willy-nilly to complete strangers.  It is true that there has been at least one well publicised case where the complainant`s allegation of rape was disbelieved after evidence from her phone exonerated the accused who was then acquitted, but the women`s groups argue that it cannot be right for the police to go through their electronic devices without first establishing a specific basis for it.  There is talk of possible legal action and the Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary has also weighed in with his misgivings about the issue and so again we have to see where it ends up.

Then there is the increasing use by the police of the fast developing facial recognition technology in its varied forms.  In the absence of clear rules of engagement, this is seen by civil liberty campaigners as a further step towards state control over ordinary citizens going about their lawful business in public places, destroying their anonymity while taking part in protests and demonstrations, and inimical to good community relations in general.

Another area of concern is the condition and treatment of women in prison, which also falls within the broad spectrum of the criminal justice system.  On this numerous studies have been and are being done all the time.  According to an EU document dated January 2018, women in prison constitute a group with distinctive needs, whether biological or gender-related, and some female prisoners also have particular vulnerabilities due to their social situation and/or cultural roles. More to the point, women who belong to identifiable minority groups suffer a double disadvantage in all these respects.  This is true in Britain as much as in other parts of the EU, and will remain so whether we Brexit or not!

Ramnik Shah