Poppi Worthington collapsed with serious injuries at her home in Barrow, Cumbria in December 2012 and was taken to hospital where she was pronounced dead. She was 13 months old. The case received widespread media attention last week when a Family Court Judge ruled that the father of Poppi had sexually assaulted his daughter before she died.
The case had already been considered by Cumbria Police. No prosecution was brought against Poppi’s father who denies any wrongdoing.
The case highlights the different standards of proof in civil and criminal systems.
To obtain a conviction in a Criminal Court a Defendant must be guilty beyond all reasonable doubt whereas in the Civil Court the decision is reached on the balance of probabilities.
To many lay people this seems ridiculous. How can a High Court Judge rule that Poppi was sexually abused by her father before she died when a Judge in the Criminal Court would not be able to reach the same decision unless the evidence showed that an offence took place beyond all reasonable doubt? This discrepancy creates confusion and uncertainty for victims and those accused of crimes alike.
This difference in the levels of proof has prompted debate and it was interesting to hear the Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, speak on the Today Programme on Radio 4.
She provided some startling figures. Only 1 in 8 victims of child sex abuse report their crimes. Of those reported incidents 70 to 80% never get to Court.
Anne Longfield’s view was that the notion of beyond reasonable doubt “isn’t fit for purpose” and was “problematic” for sexual abuse victims. These cases are often reported many years after the abuse has taken place. Forensic evidence inevitably is unavailable and the chances of securing a conviction are reduced.
Anne Longfield called for the levels of proof to be re-examined in relation to child sex abuse cases. She stated: “The Police, the Judiciary and Social Services need a serious conversation about what can be the best evidence if we know the many traditional forms of evidence aren’t just going to be there.”
The suggestion is that a different criminal standard of proof could be considered for child sex abuse victims.
I am a lawyer specialising in claims on behalf of such victims and were the burden of proof to be changed it would be a massive help to my clients. Not only would it increase their prospects of securing a conviction against the abuser but it would also help considerably in the compensation claims that we pursue. If a Defendant already has a criminal conviction for the abuse we find that the civil claims are much easier to pursue. The defence of prejudice because of the delay in bringing a claim is far harder to maintain if a Criminal Court has already ruled that the abuse occurred. Additionally such a change would have a significant benefit to those seeking compensation from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority (CICA).
We presently have many hurdles to overcome with CICA claims particularly time limits. There is a 2 year time limit on pursuing a claim and invariably victims of historic abuse are well outside this time limit. To overcome the time limit we firstly have to show there are good reasons why a claim was not brought sooner and secondly that the claim can be investigated despite the passage of time. If a criminal conviction against the abuser exists this will help overcome these burdens. The CICA, however, are far less willing to compensate historic abuse victims where there has been no conviction and will be suspicious as to why the Police have not investigated further and the CPS have not charged the alleged offender.
If the burden of proof is therefore relaxed it would in all likelihood increase the number of convictions of offenders and significantly help those pursuing damages claims both in relation to the Civil Courts and the CICA Scheme.
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