Barrister criticised for calling child abuse victim 'predatory'

Snaresbrook Crown Court The case was heard at Snaresbrook Crown Court

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The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has criticised a barrister acting on its behalf for describing a 13-year-old sex abuse victim in court as "predatory".

Robert Colover also called the girl "sexually experienced". The CPS said his language had been "inappropriate".

The CPS said it would not instruct Mr Colover in any cases of sexual offences while it considered his situation.

Neil Wilson, 41, admitted abusing the girl at his home in Romford, London, and was given a suspended jail term.

The Attorney General's Office said the sentence had been drawn to its attention as "possibly unduly lenient".

Details of the case come as the head of the judiciary in England and Wales says a select pool of judges with specialist training will be created to handle complex child abuse cases, amid concerns at the way some child witnesses are treated in court by lawyers.

The police were alerted to the actions of Wilson, who now lives in York, after his victim told a friend. Images of child sex abuse were also found on Wilson's computer.

Analysis

Why would a prosecutor say something so apparently helpful to the defendant?

Under our adversarial justice system, the role of prosecuting counsel is not to secure a conviction at all costs, or to try to secure the maximum sentence.

It has often been said that the prosecutor is akin to a "minister for justice".

That means there is an important element of impartiality to the role. So, he or she must draw to the court's attention any matter that assists the defendant - both during the course of a trial and also during the process of outlining the prosecution case following a guilty plea.

It is not for the prosecutor to argue for a particular sentence, and it is not at all unusual, while presenting the facts of the offence, for the prosecutor to bring matters to the court's attention which might assist the defendant in trying to mitigate his crime.

However, the prosecutor does need to scrutinise the potentially mitigating material carefully and the language in which it is expressed. In this particular case questions are being asked about how that scrutiny was carried out.

Wilson later admitted two counts of making extreme pornographic images and one count of sexual activity with a child.

Mr Colover, who was representing the CPS at Wilson's sentencing hearing at London's Snaresbrook Crown Court on Monday, said: "The girl is predatory in all her actions and she is sexually experienced."

The judge, Nigel Peters, said that when deciding Wilson's punishment, he had taken into account the prosecution's comments that the girl looked and behaved older than she was. Wilson's eight-month jail term was suspended for two years.

'Inappropriate'

Speaking about Mr Colover's remarks, a CPS spokesman said: "The language used by prosecution counsel was inappropriate.

"The transgressor in this case was the defendant and he bears responsibility for his criminal acts."

Alan Wardle, from the NSPCC, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "The age of consent in this country is 16, before that a child cannot consent. As a society we have drawn a line in the sand on that.

"In this case, the child was 13 and the man was 41 - it's pretty clear who the predator was."

In a statement, the Attorney General's Office said: "The case has been drawn to the attention of this office as a possibly unduly lenient sentence.

"This means it'll be considered by a law officer (the attorney or solicitor general) who will decide whether it should be referred to the Court of Appeal under the unduly lenient sentence scheme."

It said a decision would be announced once files relating to the case had been considered.

Alison Worsley, of children's charity Barnardo's, said: "It is plain wrong to imply in any way that the experiences of sexually exploited children are something they bring on themselves.

"It takes immense bravery for these young people to relive their ordeal in a court of law and we must not forget that it is the abuser who is guilty and not the victim."

However, Carl Gardner, a former government legal adviser, warned that most people commenting on the case did not know the full facts.

"The use of this word 'predatory' and the other remarks, it sounds bad to me, but we don't know how that word introduced itself into the court," he said.

Online petition

More than 4,000 people have signed an online petition calling for the CPS to investigate the language used by Mr Colover.

The petition, which was started by a woman named Jo who described herself as a "survivor of childhood sexual abuse", stated: "It's unacceptable that the crown prosecutor - the person who this young girl was relying on to help get her justice - used this kind of language in court.

"It's a sad fact that this kind of attitude is commonplace within society and the legal establishment. We need to make a stand and send a clear message: It's never the child's fault."

Paul Mendelle, a criminal barrister and former chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, said the behaviour of the victim is not usually a mitigating factor.

"Very often the victims themselves are damaged by abuse they've suffered by either the defendant or others and they often behave in sexually inappropriate ways," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

Sarah Kelly, from the National Association of People Abused in Childhood, said Mr Colover's comments were "damaging and unhelpful".

She told the BBC's Breakfast: "The people - the barristers who are performing these cross examinations - they need to be specially trained, they need to understand the impacts that face adult survivors or children giving evidence.

She added that as a survivor of abuse herself she was "absolutely horrified".

"We have this real fear that no-one is going to believe us or that people are going to blame us for the abuse, and comments like this absolutely confirm those fears," Ms Kelly said.

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