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Family Law

The leading authority on all aspects of family law

25 MAY 2006

SEXUAL ABUSE: Re B (Allegation of Sexual Abuse: Child's Evidence) [2006] EWCA Civ 773

(Court of Appeal; Latham, Carnwarth and Hughes LJJ; 25 May 2006)

Allegations were made that the father had sexually abused the daughter, as well as another child. In interviewing the daughter the social worker and police officer failed to follow the relevant guidelines. The judge concluded that the father had abused the daughter, with the mother's knowledge.

When gathering evidence from small children the greatest care was needed if the risk of obtaining unreliable evidence was to be minimised. It was of the first importance that children were given the maximum possible opportunity to recall freely, uninhibited by questions, and equally it was vital that a careful note was taken of what they said and also of any questions asked. The police officer and the social worker were apparently completely unaware of the content of the nationally agreed guidelines 'Achieving Best Evidence'. All conversations with the daughter should have been recorded; if an unrecorded discussion were to take place, the absolute irreducible minimum was that a full note be taken of questions as well as answers. Failures to follow the guidelines reduced, but by no means eliminated, the value of the evidence. The judge had been entitled to take the flawed evidence into account, recognising its deficiencies, and had been entitled to reach the conclusion that the child had been abused by the father on the basis of the totality of the evidence before him. However, the only evidence of the mother's knowledge came from a brief passage in the flawed evidence, and it had been unsafe to rely upon it as alone justifying the serious, and relatively unlikely, conclusion that the mother had watched the abuse and merely told the father to stop.

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