Since an inquiry was first announced, many schools have determined to keep a watching brief. The purpose of this article is to assist with this and to explore whether this strategy remains appropriate, or whether you should now take active steps to plan for your possible involvement.
Clamours for a review of how our country's institutions have handled their duty of care to protect children from sexual abuse increased significantly following the publicity surrounding Operation Yewtree and the investigation of abuse by Jimmy Savile, along with other prominent media and political figures.
Our Home Secretary, Theresa May, first announced a formal inquiry into this on 7 July 2014. However, what we are now faced with is a very different beast from that which was originally envisaged.
After a couple of false starts (with two Chairs resigning due to perceived conflicts of interest), the current Chair, New Zealand Judge, Dame Lowell Goddard QC was formally appointed on 4 February 2015.
The initial plan was for the inquiry to take place as a panel inquiry (along the lines of that undertaken in relation to the investigation of the Hillsborough tragedy). However, concerns about the nature of such an inquiry and, in particular, its limited powers to compel the production of evidence which could lead to a perception of immunity from scrutiny, were voiced by victim and survivor support groups.
The inquiry was later re-established as a statutory inquiry on 12 March 2015.
The inquiry is now constituted under the provisions of the Inquiries Act 2005. There have been but three so far under the Act, the most well-known being the Leveson Inquiry into phone hacking in July 2011.
Such an inquiry can compel the production of evidence, whether by ordering the production of documents or other items or requiring the attendance of witnesses at a public hearing. It is a criminal offence to fail to comply without reasonable excuse. It is also an offence to intentionally have the effect of destroying or tampering with evidence which may be relevant to an inquiry.
Organisations or individuals with sufficient interest can apply to the inquiry for designation as a core participant (akin to an interested party in inquest proceedings) in order to make representations to the inquiry and question witnesses.
Although it is not the purpose of the inquiry to attribute blame or to make findings of criminal or civil liability, it can and will make findings of fact which could lead to liability being established.
In her opening statement about the 'Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse', Justice Goddard explained that she considers the inquiry 'provides a unique opportunity to expose past failures of institutions to protect children, to confront those responsible, to uncover systemic failures, to provide support to victims and survivors, in sharing their experiences, and to make recommendations that will help prevent the sexual abuse of children in the future'.
Details about the inquiry can be found on the IICSA website: www.iicsa.org.uk.
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Although it is limited to England and Wales and to abuse of children under 18, the inquiry is without time limit and its scale is unprecedented. Nearly £18m has been budgeted for the first year of the inquiry alone.
There is but a single investigation directly relating to schools at present, but schools may find themselves involved in other investigations (such as those of the Catholic or Anglican Church) and/or further education-specific investigations may follow. Indeed, we consider this likely given the wording of the statement referring to investigation 7 as a 'first focus' and the wider definition of schools to be investigated: 'schools including private and state-funded boarding and day schools and specialist education (such as music tuition)'.
While many welcome the inquiry and recognise that our historic systems did not do enough to protect children from abuse, I have not met anyone (other than the lawyers!) looking forward to their involvement in the inquiry, or any school seeking appointment as a case study.
Indeed, the question we are most commonly asked is how best can we ensure that the inquiry light shines away from us? We cannot guarantee this. We do not yet know how much 'credit' a school will get from the inquiry (will it head off your involvement in a case study?) or in the media if it chooses to self-report. We would therefore recommend that this issue is considered on a case by case basis.
We would like to give credit for the title of this article to Robin Fletcher at the Boarding Schools Association who himself coined the phrase. It raises a valid question. Is it sufficient to keep a watching brief and to wait for Goddard?
For the reasons set out and given that interim hearings of the investigations are about to get underway and applications for the first round of core participant status close on 5 February, we recommend that schools take proactive steps to assess and manage the risks posed to them by the Goddard Inquiry.
This article appeared in the March 2016 issue of Independent Education Today.