Child abuse inquiry must press on despite complaint groups’ withdrawal
After a tumultuous start, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse is making progress under Alexis Jay
After a tumultuous time last summer with resignations and criticisms from all fronts, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) has had a period of relative calm (Paula Jefferson writes).
However, that has clearly not been acceptable to the Survivors of Organised and Institutional Abuse (SOIA), a group supporting alleged victims that has withdrawn from the process. The group’s decision will raise questions again over the inquiry, but finding a way to ensure that all have the opportunity to contribute is a massive task.
Concerns about delay are understandable. However, since the inquiry’s summer of despair, progress has been made, evidence is being gathered and hearings are proceeding. All this cannot be achieved overnight.
SOIA is not the first such group to withdraw: the Shirley Oaks Survivors Group and two individual core participants had already done so. However, there remain more than 150 complainant core participants along with six other alleged survivor groups.
The SOIA’s representative has described the work of the inquiry as now being nothing more than a box ticking exercise. After the transition from Dame Lowell Goddard to Alexis Jay’s chairmanship, there has been a review, changes in focus, and clarification that the proceedings will make findings in cases where a sufficient evidential basis exists rather than where something is well-founded.
Some alleged victims and survivors may consider that clarification to mean that the inquiry will not provide the assurance they had hoped for of reaching definitive conclusions about what did or did not occur to them. It has also been suggested that victims and survivors do not have the opportunity to gain proper legal representation, unlike the organisations that are participating.
The SOIA’s website contains a link to the possibility of representation by Public Interest Lawyers, a firm that closed last year.
However, the majority of the complainant core participants are represented by firms that have a long history of fighting for clients who have been abused and can seek payment of their costs. Organisations, irrespective of their size, have been told that they will not receive any payment towards their legal representation.
The focus of the inquiry has always been on examining the extent to which public and private institutions have failed to protect children in the past and to make meaningful recommendations to keep children safer.
The scale of that task means that it must consider a wide range of matters but with a degree of proportionality. It cannot comment on each survivor’s individual experience but, via the Truth Project, it hear from individuals in a context that does not involve the need for legal representation.
However, the inquiry must ask the organisations that were looking after the children what they did or, importantly, did not do – otherwise nothing will be learnt and the purpose of holding the inquiry will be lost.
Paula Jefferson is a partner and abuse claims expert at the national law firm BLM.