Highly respected and admired for his work on Human Rights law, Ben Emmerson QC seemed like the perfect stand-in to steer the Government’s historical sex abuse inquiry when it was left without a chair for a second time after the resignations of Elizabeth Butler-Sloss and Fiona Woolf.
Many of his learned friends’ eyebrows were therefore raised this week when he was accused of having “bullied and intimidated” panel member and abuse victim Sharon Evans.
Ms Evans told MPs on the Home Affairs Select Committee on Tuesday that she had made a complaint about Mr Emmerson to her MP “about the fact that I felt he was overstepping his mark, in terms of that advice and rewriting of letters [from panel members to Home Secretary Theresa May], because I feel the independence of the panel is important.”
Suddenly the spotlight is shining on the legal counsel who, in the words of the committee chair Keith Vaz, has been left “running the show”.
A founder of Cherie Blair’s Matrix Chambers, Mr Emmerson specialises in European human rights law among other areas. His famous cases include successfully representing two of four homosexual Armed Forces members at the European Court of Human Rights who had been dismissed for their sexual orientation. The UK Government was ordered to pay compensation put on hold all other investigations into homosexuals that it was conducting.
Mr Emmerson released a statement describing the allegations as “entirely baseless”, adding that complaints from Ms Evans had already been “fully investigated and dismissed as unfounded”. And the remaining members of the inquiry said the panel had “full confidence in the integrity, advice and impartiality” of Mr Emmerson.
Speaking to The Independent, Peter Saunders, Chief Executive of the National Association of People Abused in Childhood (Napac), said he could understand how his manner may have rubbed some people up the wrong way – but maintained he supported Mr Emmerson in his inquiry role.
When the panel met us in November to complain about Fiona Woolf’s appointment as chair, he explained, “some of us felt that she had already resigned, or was about to go, and I mentioned that in the meeting. Ben was very quick to say ‘absolutely not, no, no, that has not happened’. It had an air of ‘I’ll put you in your place, sir’. I can see how he can come across as a barrister, a QC, that’s their way, isn’t it?”
Other campaigners closely involved with the inquiry have been quick to praise his efforts to date. One told The Independent: “Ben has always been the one who really seems on top of everything, in the way a lawyer is. He anticipated the big issues and he was the one able to give assurances about being able to see documents covered by the Official Secrets Act and seeing classified documents. He thought through all of this carefully and what this means and could give confidence to a lot of survivors.”
Yet there are broader worries the continuing public disputes are having a damaging effect. Campaigner Ian Pace said: “There is still no chair, and much damage is being done by spats involving panel members, others working either for the Home Office or the inquiry, politicians, survivors and campaigners, being played out in public. And Lynne Featherstone’s appearance in front of the Committee on Tuesday, revealing herself very ill-informed about the whole matter, does not inspire confidence.”
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