Few areas of the law require greater sensitivity in their handling than allegations of child sex abuse. Such cases, badly handled, can be devastating for the child and for the reputations of adults who may find themselves wrongly accused of a crime which carries a particularly acute social stigma.
Scotland has a blemished record in this area. Do we have a serious systemic problem? A highly critical court judgment on the conduct of a senior social worker and police officers in the examination of a five year-old girl suggests exactly this.
As we report today, the court found the interviewers had attempted to coerce the girl into repeating allegations that she had been sexually abused, before subjecting her to an "unjustified" invasive medical examination.
An Edinburgh sheriff called for the removal of the social worker and two police officers from child interviewing duties after he ruled their work was "damaging".
According to the judgment, a child psychologist believed the two interviews carried out by the social worker in the presence of female police officers, was "worse than the interviewing of the children that led to the Orkney Inquiry in 1991". That scandal saw nine children forcibly removed from their homes in dawn raids on the suspicion of ritualistic satanic abuse. All of the children were later sent home after a judge decided the evidence was "incompetent". A public inquiry later revealed that child protection interviews had been designed to force the children to repeat allegations made by one girl.
This latest case carried some disturbing similarities. According to Dr David La Rooy, of Abertay University, and advocate John Halley in an article in the Scots Law Times, they write of "a serious systemic problem which is harming the welfare of children." The failures in this case, they add, "are not dissimilar to the kinds of malpractice (we] regularly encounter in our respective practices in other cases of joint investigative interviewing of children in Scotland."
The recent case arose during an application by a father for contact with his two children. The application had been resisted by his estranged partner, who left their home with the children after making an allegation that he had sexually abused their daughter.
The sheriff ruled there was no evidence any such abuse had taken place and the daughter had repeatedly indicated that the abuse alleged had not happened.
The court found there was a catalogue of inappropriate direct questioning. The interviews were not recorded on DVD, but written up later based on handwritten notes. Both the police and social work departments would be failing in their duty if they did not thoroughly investigate such allegations. There has been a spate of cases where investigation was not as throrough as it should have been. The approach of the police and social workers in this case should be seen in this light. That said, it leaves in little doubt the need for interviewing to be handled with great professionalism.