A travesty of justice that shows importance of corroboration in Scots law – Tom Wood

Sometimes we are able to learn from our mistakes, so let’s hope that the recent debacle surrounding Carl Beech, aka “Nick”, is a case study for trainee investigators for years to come.

Artists impression of Carl Beech (wearing blue) in the dock at Newcastle Crown Court (Picture: Julia Quenzler/SWNS)
Artists impression of Carl Beech (wearing blue) in the dock at Newcastle Crown Court (Picture: Julia Quenzler/SWNS)

In a gross example of wishful thinking and with the ghost of Jimmy Savile as a backdrop, experienced detectives apparently ignored first professional principles and followed the hysteria of the mob to stigmatise a group of old men, some dead, all long retired from senior positions in public life.

Regardless of the weasel words of apology from the police, or not in the case of some political figures, this case represents a disgraceful episode that could have been avoided by respecting what is thankfully still the fundamental tenet of our Scottish justice system – corroboration.

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When Beech came forward, it was with a litany of serious allegations including murder, rape, torture and just about every other gross physical and sexual perversion you could imagine. Those he accused included a dead former Prime Minister, a former Home Secretary and a retired field marshal – all with flawless reputations.

One would have thought that, when presented with such an outlandish tale, a cautious approach would have been wise – that some due diligence for sure would have been carried out, but no, the opposite was the case.

The more outrageous the allegations, the more eminent the accused, the more the single accuser was apparently believed.

In their desperation to prove their adherence to their new doctrine of believing all allegations regardless, seasoned investigators seem to have ignored the basics.

With the presumption of innocence firmly in mind, the first tests in such cases must always be: could this have happened? Not “did it?”, but “could it?”

The second test is what or who corroborates these allegations. As it turned out, most of the alleged crimes could not have happened: many of the accused were not in the country at the time and, as for corroboration, there was not a shred!

Now Beech faces a long prison sentence for his attention-seeking and deceit but he could not have succeeded without the incompetence of the police and the actions of some political actors.

So what lessons are we to take from this farrago? First, despite the braying of the mob, professionals must retain a healthy scepticism when presented with such allegations and the test must always be corroboration before famous people or private citizens are exposed to the pillory of the public spotlight.

In recent years there have been moves to dilute the requirement for corroboration in some areas of our criminal law – apparently to “improve” the conviction rates in certain categories of sexual crime. So far this dangerous ploy has been resisted but we should not be complacent.

When you strip away the headlines and the name-calling the case of Beech proves once again the absolute necessity of corroboration in all areas of our justice system – to protect us all.

Tom Wood is a writer and former deputy chief constable