How do you deliver justice fairly?
Posted on 23rd May 2017
If there is one quote that has remained with me, it is one from a foreign-language film. It broadly translates as “law and justice sit as slaves in the houses of powerful people.” It came to mind when I read about the self-professed “living hell” of Mr Kato Harris a year on from his being acquitted of an allegation of rape.
Mr Harris was a highly respected deputy head teacher at the £18,000 a year St George’s School in Ascot, Berkshire, with a 16 year illustrious career of teaching behind him. Mr Harris referred to teaching as a “wonderful dream”. The dream was however shattered when, out of the blue in December 2014, he was accused by a 14 year old student of raping her three times late in 2013 during lunch breaks under the pretence of having “chats”.
After an excruciating 17 month ordeal in which he was publicly named and shamed, it took the jury just under 30 minutes to acquit Mr Harris. Whilst this victory should not be undermined, it is clear that this was a fundamentally flawed prosecution that was doomed from the outset. It was a prosecution that should not have ever been brought. The question that continues to resonate is “why”?
Mr Harris’ dream came crashing down when a clearly disturbed 14 year-old pupil at the school where Mr Harris taught – the complainant in the case – made the allegation four months on from when the last rape supposedly took place. The Crown Prosecution Service initially took the view that there was insufficient evidence to charge Mr Harris. So what changed?
One of the most disquieting aspects of the case is the fact that the complainant’s wealthy parents were able to bring a disproportionate and improper amount of influence to bear on the case via the depth of their pockets. It is no secret that the couple instructed a top 100 law firm and sought private assistance from Alison Levitt, former principal legal adviser to the head of the Crown Prosecution Service, and Sue Akers, a former Scotland Yard deputy assistant commissioner.
After the acquittal Mr Harris not unreasonably applied to have his legal costs paid by the Crown Prosecution Service. The trial Judge ordered that all his costs should be paid and was highly critical of the conduct of Akers and Levitt in placing “enormous pressure” on the police to prosecute the case despite the police’s concerns about the “heavily prompted” account of the complainant. The judge even went so far as to call the decision to prosecute “improper”. Mr Kato after his trial said: “if you have enough money, there are former senior members of the police and the CPS who you can pay to use their experience and contacts in these organisations to improve your chances of securing a prosecution. The system allowed them to do it.”
It appears as if the principle enshrined in Article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that “all are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law” was forgotten in this case. The law did not afford Mr Harris the same protection as defendants in similar circumstances because he was accused by a complainant with parents who were able to use their financial means to influence the decision to bring the case against him.
Rochdale child-sex abuse
I recently watched the moving and harrowing “Three Girls” BBC TV drama regarding the Rochdale child-sex abuse case. One of the things that struck me most about the case was how class-bias may be an inherent issue with law enforcement agencies. The drama exposed the genuine bigotry faced by working-class children who were ensnared by a predatory gang of men. It is clear that the view of the police and social services initially was that the victims were responsible for the position in which they found themselves and saw the victims as mere “child prostitutes”
The depiction of the frustration of the victims and those who were intent upon assisting them after the Crown Prosecution Service dropped the sex abuse charges in 2008 was not lost on the viewers. It supported my view that affluence and social background influences whether you are regarded as a “victim” or not. In the case of Mr Harris, his fate was sealed by the influence brought to bear on his case by the wealth of the complainant’s parents. Turning to the events in Rochdale where the complainants were all from poor backgrounds, after the first victim came forward in 2008 it was decided that there was not enough evidence to proceed until a fresh investigation resulted in a trial four years later in 2012 which ultimately secured nine convictions. Would the case have taken so long to proceed to trial had the victims been from moneyed backgrounds?
Poor decision making by key agencies
It is universally accepted that victims should be afforded protection and the guilty punished. What continues to happen nonetheless and more frustratingly is that the current system is clearly encouraging and promoting poor decision-making on the part of law enforcement and prosecutorial agencies. There are obvious weaknesses in the current system where weak and undeserving cases are taken to trial and horrendous cases that should be prosecuted in the public interest are not. The weakness is compounded by the non-accountability of law enforcement agencies and the Crown Prosecution Service who fail society by their conduct, time and again, as they did in Mr Harris’ case and in the Rochdale child-sex abuse case.
In both these cases, and in many others, the concept of delivering justice was lost sight of and irrelevant factors such as wealth and class were allowed to influence the outcome. This should not have been allowed to happen. The danger is that without reform, the system will allow it to happen again.