Anger as Crown blunder sees child-sex trial collapse

PROSECUTORS came under fire last night after a sheriff allowed an alleged paedophile to walk free from court, ruling that the charges against him had been wrongly worded.

Hamish Paterson, 56, had pleaded not guilty of acting indecently towards five girls, aged between 12 and 15, at his home in Alloa - and on one occasion in a car - over a period of 15 months.

Yesterday morning, however, after five days of evidence, his trial was halted after the sheriff said the charges were "fundamentally incompetent" because they did not mention the legislation they fell under.

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All five girls had given evidence before Sheriff Maxwell Hendry at Stirling Sheriff Court, with one, now 16, continuously breaking down as she appeared via video link. Last night, Bill Aitken, the Scottish Conservatives' justice spokesman, said: "As far as I can see, the sheriff is perfectly correct.

"What is surprising is that no objection was taken at the start, which would have obviated the need for the alleged victims to give what may have been distressing evidence. The Crown got this badly wrong."

Outside court, one of Paterson's alleged victims, now a 16-year-old care student, said: "I'm really angry. We all told our stories, but the jury never got a chance to decide."

Her mother added: "I'm furious. You'd think they'd have realised there was something wrong with the case before they put my daughter and the other girls through the ordeal of giving evidence. It's a prosecution bungle. Heads ought to roll."

A Crown Office spokesman said: "We are reviewing the decision." It is understood this will involve looking at whether Paterson can be retried.

After listening to legal submissions at the end of the prosecution case, Sheriff Hendry had ruled that as the charges before the court did not name the Act of Parliament which Paterson's alleged actions were supposed to have contravened, they could not be put to the jury.

He told Paterson: "As a matter of law, not as a matter of fact, I find you not guilty."