Dave Lee Travis, Bill Roache – and the law under the spotlight

It is telling that both men referred to there being ‘no winners’ and ‘no victory’

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The trial which has ended in Dave Lee Travis’s acquittal on the majority of charges of sexual misconduct that he faced has provided an object lesson in the limits of the judicial system to contend with questions which cover changing moral and social attitudes, as well as solid standards of proof that a court can or should accept. To lose one high-profile “sex-pest” case in a week is unfortunate for the Crown Prosecution Service and the police who amassed the evidence in the expensive and extensive Operation Yewtree, set up in the wake of the revelations of Jimmy Savile’s sex assaults. To lose two, as Coronation Street actor Bill Roache was also is cleared of sex assault charges, looks very problematic.

I would imagine I am not the only person to feel the tug of two very different instincts here. One is to keep on encouraging men and women who have suffered abuse and degradation in the past to speak up.

But that is not the same as offering a legal standard of proof for a conviction after many decades – and the distinction is not just a weaselly one wielded by defence lawyers. For as little as I respect Lee Travis (who has said he liked photographing nude or semi-nude women because he wanted to “utilise their (fantastic) shapes” or Roache, reminiscing about his youthful penchant for “slender, young delicate” women, they have been subject to a trial by public judgement, and they have both been cleared.

The outcome of the court process has hardly provided a satisfactory ending for them or the criminal justice system. It is telling that both men referred to there being “no winners” and “no victory”. Allegations of sexual abuse always stick, which is why the desire to punish as many real offenders as possible must be balanced with a concern for due care over bringing cases to court. When I have this argument about say, rape cases, it is often noisily countered that the conviction rate is low (true) and that many victims fear the reputational damage of coming forward. The unspoken codicil is that if some men are falsely accused, that is a price worth paying.

But we should not be counting justice in a lumpen Soviet tractor-factory way here. It runs against a fundamental principle of justice to target famous names in a mood of overheated retribution for the crimes of a dead (and thus unaccountable) serious offender by widening the net to the point of persecuting others on far scrappier evidence.

You might answer that if many complainants come forward, they cannot be wrong. But a collective slew of accusations, made at a time of vast publicity, years after the alleged offence is to present a real problem for evidence-based justice. Because big institutions – and, frankly, the rest of us – failed in the past to speak out against sleazy, exploitative behaviour, there is now an appetite for the courts to make up for that ethical deficit retrospectively. That is not their job, and it would lead to some very dangerous and random conclusions if it were.

While juries have been guided to take more account of “patterns of behaviour”, in cases such as child and sex abuse, where memories can genuinely fray or be manipulated on either side, it remains vastly important that standards of proof match those we would hope to expect in any criminal case, were we to find ourselves, our father or our partner in the dock.

A desire to right past wrongs, then, should not always lead to the courtroom door. Having in the past ignored or sidelined many women who reported sexual assaults, the police and CPS have, in a fit of moral panic, slithered straight into a position where they appear to take allegations at face value (or more likely, pass the problem over to jurors to take the heat). That is neither competent nor moral. It can’t go on, and the logical result will be time limits on such trials. A small dose of common sense should have led us to this conclusion at the start. The lesson of this mess is regrettably simple: do not rely on panicky public institutions in the middle of a media storm to apply it.

Anne McElvoy is on the staff of ‘The Economist’ and a panellist on Radio 4’s ‘Moral Maze

 

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