Don’t Shoot the Messenger

The investigation into child abuse alleged against some of the great and the good was called “Operation Midland”. To investigate further allegations made by one man that Lady Brittan’s late husband, the former head of the armed forces Lord Bramall, and the former MP Harvey Proctor and been abusing children the police sought and obtained search warrants to search their homes.

What the Police expected the search of the homes to reveal about child abuse alleged decades earlier I have never understood. Nevertheless the police applied for search warrants to a judge, in this case to a District Judge and laid what evidence they had before the judge. The judge issued the warrants and as a result the homes of three wholly innocent elderly people were searched by the police with all the attendant publicity. Of course, the searches revealed nothing because the people that the police were investigating, all elderly, were wholly innocent and the allegations were motivated by malice. Clearly all three people were badly shaken and distressed by the police turning up with search warrants and searching their homes.

Now, after the damage was done and after the police informant was convicted for perverting the course of justice by inventing these allegations of child abuse, the issue of the warrants has been investigated by a former judge of the High Court, Sir Richard Henriques, who has claimed that the Police, when applying for the search warrants may well have perverted the course of justice because they failed to tell the District Judge that the informant had been inconsistent.

It strikes me that this is a question of shooting the messenger. Of course, the police were foolish in the way they dealt with operation Midland and made mistakes by relying on a single informant who subsequently was proved to be a liar and rather a nasty piece of work. However, the target for my criticism is the District Judge who granted the search warrants.

Search warrants must be granted by a judge. This means application for a search warrant is a judicial process in which a judge makes a judicial decision. It should not be be a rubber stamping of the request but a thorough investigation into the justice of granting a search warrant.

The issues that this raises are

  1. What did evidence of child abuse the police think they would find at the homes of Lady Brittain, Lord Bramhall and Mr Proctor? The abuse alleged was years earlier – too far away for there to be electronic evidence and DNA evidence.
  2. Absent uncorrobrated evidence of a single informant, how likely was it that the search of the homes was merely a step to “shake up” the suspects and their families: this is not a proper reason to grant a search warrant.
  3. How, if at all did the District Judge having before him or her applications for search warrants test those applications.?
  4. The allegations made warranted investigation because they were serious. However these allegations depended on a single witness whose story was uncorroborated. How was it that the District Judge failed to take account of this when considering the search warrants?

Judges should remember that they are there to protect the rights of individuals and that although the existing law on search warrants is confusing, it is clear that many applications, like these applications, are not properly scrutinised by judges.

Police make mistakes all the time, so do judges. However, judges should understand that the police do make mistakes and in the case of applications for search warrants judges are there to wherever possible prevent those mistakes and not simply to believe whatever the police tell them. .

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