Dozens of sex offenders win right to appeal

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The Independent Online

Dozens of convicted paedophiles are to have their cases reheard by the Court of Appeal amid concern that the methods used by police to investigate child abuse have led to serious miscarriages of justice.

Many of the reviews centre on children's homes but others involve step-parents whose convictions have been referred to the Court of Appeal by the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC). The "test cases" will be followed by an inquiry by MPs into child-abuse prosecutions over the last 30 years amid charges that police "trawled" children's homes and prisons for new complainants.

The moves highlight the difficulty in securing safe convictions against paedophiles and follow a controversial proposal by Lord Woolf, the Lord Chief Justice, that some suspected sex offenders may need to be locked up before they have committed a crime.

Lawyers bringing the test cases have been working closely with an all-party parliamentary group, whose members include Baroness Williams of Crosby and the MP for Crosby, Claire Curtis-Thomas. Last week the group won an agreement from the Home Affairs Select Committee for an inquiry into child-abuse prosecutions, an issue many MPs believe has been ignored after the outrage over the trials of Sarah Payne's killer, Roy Whiting, and the pop mogul Jonathan King.

The group is particularly concerned about allegations investigated by Merseyside Police in the 1980s and 1990s. In a test case to be heard by the Court of Appeal in January a careworker at a Merseyside children's home, sentenced to 14 years in jail last year, is to have his case reheard after a key witness, a convicted criminal, withdrew his complaint, claiming he was encouraged to give evidence by the police.

The Court of Appeal will also hear the case of a 60-year-old careworker from Devon who claims the evidence against him consists of uncorroborated allegations made by serving prisoners. In a third case referred tothe court, a careworker from Penarth, south Wales, claims allegations against him relate to "non-specific events" over a long time. His solicitor, Tim Hacket said: "[South Wales] police deliberately search out ex-pupils, who generally [have] poor self-esteem or previous convictions, and then suggest names."

Ms Curtis-Thomas said: "A significant proportion of the victims in these cases have been identified while serving prison sentences or are known to the police in other contexts."

The select committee is also expected to look at the effect of compensation. Victims who allege child abuse are usually guaranteed compensation once they have achieved a conviction in the criminal courts.

In a letter to Chris Mullin, the select committee chairman, Ms Curtis-Thomas said: "There is much criticism about how the police trawl for victims and the way they conduct their interviews with the individuals who have allegedly been abused by leading the complainant into making or asserting allegations put forward by the police." She said once a careworker had been convicted, other complaints usually followed, yet many allegations referred to events 20 or 30 years ago that were hard to contest.

Sex offenders now make up a third of all new cases considered by the CCRC. A separate category of cases, also to be heard by the Court of Appeal, include step-parents convicted of child abuse many years after the event. In one case, a man from Kent had his conviction for raping his step-daughter quashed after the CCRC questioned the strength of the evidence.

Children's welfare groups said challenges to convictions should not deter the police from investigating allegations of abuse. Shaun Kelly, of NCH, formerly the National Children's Homes, said: "Very few people actually are convicted of child abuse. We are concerned about the number of allegations which are not made and the large number of cases which go unreported. The experience of child abuse which took place 15 and 20 years ago in this country is very similar to what happened in Ireland and Canada – all these people can't be lying."

* A man was arrested yesterday in connection with the murder of a suspected paedophile found battered to death at his home, police said. George Crawford, 64, had been due to appear at Manchester Crown Court next month over allegations he abused four children in the 1970s and 1980s. Mr Crawford, who had no previous convictions for sex abuse, was expected to deny all charges.