Emma Bryson: How Scots law protects sex offenders

I was sexually abused as a child but my abuser can't be prosecuted because it happened in Scotland, writes Emma Bryson.
Emma Bryson says police were unfailingly supportive but she feels badly let down by the Scottish legal system. Picture: TSPLEmma Bryson says police were unfailingly supportive but she feels badly let down by the Scottish legal system. Picture: TSPL
Emma Bryson says police were unfailingly supportive but she feels badly let down by the Scottish legal system. Picture: TSPL

I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. This is not a comfortable statement to make and perhaps not comfortable to read, but it is a fact of my life that even now, more than 30 years after it happened, still has an impact on me.

I was ten years old when the abuse began and 14 when it finally came to an end. I went to the police a few months later but was told that I had waited too long for there to be any evidence, and so they weren’t able to take any action. At the time there was nothing else I could do and I had no option but to accept that. Life went on, and although I have been through some very difficult times as a direct result of what happened to me, I’ve also been fortunate to have family and friends who have given me a lot of support over the years. I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.

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Almost 30 years after I had been told that the police were unable do anything to help me, the Jimmy Savile allegations hit the headlines and were then quickly followed by a number of other historic abuse claims. Matters that had previously been taboo were suddenly up for discussion on the news every night of the week and the scale of it was horrifying, but to discover that there were so many other people just like me, who had lived silently with their experiences for decades but were now prepared to speak out and seek justice, was a revelation. In many of the high-profile cases covered by the media, the perpetrators were still alive and eventually convicted, and the possibility of asking the police to reconsider my case began to seem worth consideration.

Reporting my abuse to the police all over again was not a decision I took lightly. In the end I did so because I had nothing to lose; 30 years is a long time to carry the guilt and shame of someone else’s actions. I wanted to see that guilt and shame transferred to the person who was actually responsible, and more than anything, I wanted to be free of it. I still do.

It has been gut wrenching to relive those experiences, and even more so to have to explain them in detail, but the police were unfailingly supportive. Over the year they spent on the investigation, they were always available and willing to answer my questions, and I can offer no criticism of any of officers I dealt with. Despite the fact that so many years had passed, they were still able to find evidence of my abuse in social work records and other documents, and a number of people who had been aware of the abuse at the time gave statements to the police in my support. Had this taken place in England then the man responsible would have been prosecuted on the strength of that evidence, but he wasn’t, because in Scotland the law prevented this from happening.

The requirement for corroboration is unique to Scottish law, specifying that two independent sources of evidence are required before a defendant can be convicted of a crime. Theoretically, it makes complete sense that allegations of crime must be corroborated before a prosecution can take place, but the reality is that for certain types of cases (such as domestic abuse, sexual assault, rape and historic abuse) the specific types of corroboration required can be problematic. For example, in my case the police were aware of other women who had been abused in childhood by the same man, and had any of those women been prepared to make a statement about their own experience then a prosecution would have been possible; if someone else had been physically present whilst the abuse was taking place and been willing to testify to that then a prosecution would have been possible; had there been forensic evidence available then a prosecution would have been possible.

Unfortunately for me, and for thousands of others like me, the corroborative evidence available to the police does not always fall within such restrictive limits, and when that happens then the law effectively prevents any prosecution from taking place.

Those who defend the requirement for corroboration do so on the grounds that it protects people against false accusation and prevents miscarriages of justice, but I have to ask, is that really what the criminal justice system is intended for? Shouldn’t its priority be to protect the victims of crime, to prosecute those responsible and to actively deliver justice? A conviction cannot be secured without any evidence of guilt, so surely we can depend upon court proceedings to establish whether or not an allegation of crime is proven. It is incomprehensible to me that the prevention of a hypothetical miscarriage of justice should take precedence over the prosecution of a sex offender. I struggle daily to understand how such a thing could ever have come into law.

Almost a year has passed since the investigation concluded and I would like to say that I have been able to move on, but the truth is that I can’t. I still struggle with an overwhelming sense of injustice. I remind myself every day that I am a survivor, that I have lived through worse times and come through them, but I feel defeated and very bitter to have been so badly let down by a system that I had believed was intended to deliver justice.