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Family Division judge hands down ruling in care proceedings involving 49 parties

A Family Division judge has handed down his judgment in what is said to have been one of the largest public law children's cases ever litigated.

In AA & 25 Ors (Children) (Rev 2) [2019] EWFC 64 Sir Mark Hedley exonerated 15 people and made no findings against others in a trial of an alleged paedophile ring.

The judge described the case as one of the most complex to come before the courts. The 15 care cases involved four local authorities, 24 respondents and five intervenors, with 21 of those being named as alleged perpetrators.

There were in all 49 parties to the proceedings, including 25 named children. Some 22 QCs were instructed alongside a further 42 counsel.

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Sir Mark said the local authorities alleged that there was a paedophile ring involving many respondents and others centred on the home of the grandparents of the children.

The judge found that there was no evidence that any but three of the children had been abused.

Sir Mark pointed out that the case had required a courtroom that could accommodate 156 people and that 42,000 pages of evidence was submitted with a further 12,000 considered but not disclosed.

In the course of investigations 150 electronic devices were seized, which yielded the equivalent of 800,000 pages of data and 41 external hard drives had to be bought to allow it to be assessed in time.

The judge said the parties in this case were connected either by blood or marriage and partnership in a family “characterised by multiple relationships and frequent adult feuds”.

Despite this the children had thrived with the exceptions of three girls identified as AA and twins AB and AC.

They were removed by social services in 2009, having “suffered serious emotional and psychological damage, they were in a very poor physical condition, they had obvious learning deficits, in particular in relation to the twins, and they were almost entirely unsocialised, and a number of witnesses have used the word ‘feral’ to describe their behaviour and condition”.

Sir Mark said allegations had been made of an organised paedophile ring but noted: “Child protection work is today carried out in a rabid and unforgiving atmosphere, generated by a well-grounded public fear that too many children are being abused in our society.

“It is unsurprising that investigators are not unaware of or unaffected by that atmosphere. That is, of course, why the court must never lose sight of the true lodestar of fact-finding, namely the reliability of the evidence.”

Investigators were well-intentioned but “good intentions are not enough in an area where many of those involved could and should have known that it is sensitive, confidential and prone to error”

The judge excluded deliberate fabrication but said he was “satisfied that there is a real degree of fantasy in this case.

“Indeed, the more the allegations have developed, the more fantastic they have become. Two obvious examples are the sheer number of times that abuse is said to have occurred, which on a literal reading exceeds 2,000, and, in the case of AB, the numbers involved.

“It is simply the view of everyone who knew or had searched this house that some of the encounters described by AB just could not have happened.”

He said AB found “rich emotional rewards in making and continuing to make disclosures. The incentive to remember or dream (a word sometimes used) or fantasise more and more was very powerful when seen through the eyes of these two very damaged and very needy girls”.

But the judge said: “Fantasy has to be grounded in some sort of knowledge. What these girls have said, with all its vivid and ghastly detail, is simply not explicable as the result of an overactive imagination, and, in any event, they were simply not capable of that”, concluding they had been exposed to pornography.

He concluded that lived experience had contributed to what they have said but could not tell “the point at which lived experience has become fantasy”.

The judge said he was entirely satisfied that no paedophile ring had been provied to exist and the way in which the allegations emerged made it impossible safely to identify any individual perpetrator.

“All I can say is that there is nothing in the evidence that would allow any named respondent or intervenor to be treated as being under a cloud of suspicion, although no one can escape the cloud of unknowing.”

He exonerated 15 of those concerned and said that for others: “I can only emphasise that the legal consequences for every named person against whom no findings have been made are the same, and no future distinctions must be made between any of them on this basis in terms of their rights and abilities to care for their children.”

Sir Mark said that despite the high costs involved the grave nature of the matters raised meant “I find it very difficult to criticise anyone charged with serious decision-making in this area for taking the view that responsibility for the decision should be committed to and left with the court in a case with allegations such as these”.

Mark Smulian

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