Barbara Hewson is wrong. She must be defended.

One of the most important qualities a barrister needs is courage, and nobody can accuse Barbara Hewson of lacking it, although it is not obvious that she has the same amount of wisdom.

Her characterisation of Operation Yewtree as “an inquisition,” her likening of it to Soviet style justice, her description of Stuart Hall’s crimes as “low level misdemeanours,” her call for a statute of limitations, and most of all her call for the age of consent to be lowered to 13 have attracted fire from all sides, including even her own chambers which has described itself as “shocked” by her article in Spiked.

Some of those who say they are the most shocked have been the most intemperate in their responses. Twitter is alive with people calling down anathemas, and one of the more popular (and generous) responses has been the assertion that she is “an apologist for rape”. Even more unpleasantly, others have descended to vile abuse, a stand up comedian calling her amongst other things a “rancid petulant amoral c…” (it’s the way he tells ’em), and from some arch-moralists there have been calls for her to be raped herself, to bring home to her the errors of her thinking.

Such disgusting comments support the general thrust of her argument that there is far too much hysteria about the subject, and whilst I disagree with much of what she said, it is of the utmost importance that her right to say it should be defended.

Let us be clear about a few things. Barbara Hewson is not an apologist for rape. I have read and re-read her article and it does not in any way seek to justify rape. She does discuss Stuart Hall’s case, but Mr Hall has not pleaded guilty or been convicted of rape, of a child or anyone else. We have not in fact had a very full account of exactly what he did., According to the BBC possibly the most serious offence was molesting “a nine year old girl by putting his hand up her skirt.” His other offences seem to have involved older girls whom he molested either by forcing his kisses on them, them, or by grabbing their breasts. There was indeed a charge of rape, but this was not proceeded with after the complainant decided not to give evidence in the light of his other pleas. We have a presumption of innocence so it is not right to call Stuart Hall a rapist.

Now to describe these offences as “low level misdemeanours” is indeed to minimise their seriousness, and certainly very foolish, especially when we still know so little of what actually happened. They sound like very nasty offences, well able to cause lasting damage. But they do fall quite a long way short of rape in law.

She calls for the lowering of the age of consent to 13. One can strongly disagree with Ms Hewson about that, as I do, but to advocate it does not make her “an apologist for rape.” The age of consent differs from country to country. Here it is 16. In Turkey it is 18. Other perfectly civilised countries – France, Sweden, Italy – have lower ages of consent than we do. In Spain it is 13, albeit hedged about with various provisos. There is a respectable argument that adolescents of roughly the same age ought not to be criminalised for sexual activity with each other, which would presuppose at least a partial lowering of the age of consent.

Ms Hewson makes the sensible point that the criminal process cannot be treated as therapy. The purpose of a criminal trial is not to enable everyone to sympathise with anyone who claims to have been a victim. The purpose is to punish the guilty and exonerate the innocent. Unfortunately, she then spoils her good point by a clumsy comparison with the Soviet criminal system. To compare our justice system to that of the Soviet Union is absurd. Perhaps Ms Hewson should read rather less Furedi (who she cites repeatedly) and rather more of the Gulag Archipelago.

She suggests a statute of limitations, such that no criminal or civil action can be taken after the passage of many years. That is something that is regarded as almost axiomatic in some countries. For what it is worth, I think she is wrong again, although there are some reasons for believing that the courts ought to be more ready than they are to find that, in some cases, a fair trial is not possible after thirty or forty years.

She calls for anonymity for complainants to be abolished.  Strictly speaking there is no such thing as “anonymity” for complainants: the accused (who needs to know) is told the name of the complainant, it is just that their public identification is prohibited.  I see nothing wrong with that, and what is more I would extend it to those who have been accused of sex crimes. It seems, although perhaps she is not crystal clear, that she believes that even child complainants should be publicly identified, another ridiculous position, in my view.

But the fact that we may strongly disagree with Ms Hewson does not begin to justify the sort of abuse that she has received.

Freedom of speech within the law is one of our most vital freedoms. Ms Hewson has said nothing illegal, she has libeled no-one, she has not incited hatred against anyone, she has not attempted to justify rape.  She has unpopular opinions about an inflammatory subject and she has expressed them. She must not be silenced by the mob.

 

(There is a very sensible piece here concentrating in more detail on the Twitter reaction to Ms Hewson’s article)

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Author: Matthew

I have been a barrister for over 25 years, specialising in crime. You may also have come across some of my articles I have written on legal issues for The Times, Standpoint, Daily Telegraph or Criminal Law & Justice Weekly

7 thoughts on “Barbara Hewson is wrong. She must be defended.”

  1. The analogy with the Soviet Union (and Nazi Germany) that matters here, is the growing level of intolerance towards anyone who dares to be a dissident by questioning the left-right, conservative-feminist orthodoxy on youth and sex, and the hysteria being orchestrated through the mass media, which is poisoning the criminal justice system.

    It’s worse in the USA but we always follow suit:

    * Broadening the definition of sexual crimes to criminalise the masses (creating more monsters and further stoking the hysteria). Rape should mean rape but it doesn’t: it means engaging in sex willingly after 3 pints of Fosters.

    * Narrowing sentencing differentials (“I may as well murder the victim, I’ll get life anyway”).

    * Criminalising, monstering and naming and shaming tens of thousands of teenagers for low-level sexual misdemeanors with other teenagers. (Tell me if I’m wrong: French kissing falls within the legal definition of ‘sexual activity’ with a minor.)

    * Ex-offenders don’t stand a chance when the CRB system forces everybody to disclose ALL convictions, ACQUITTALS, bindovers and cautions for the rest of their lives. (You guys know how to get repeat business.) Innocent until proven guilty? That’s long been history in the real world.

    * So-called defence lawyers advising innocent clients to plea-bargain, often resulting in far longer sentences than they were told to expect.

    * Expert witnesses whose claims and their premises are contestable but never contested in court. But the Orthodoxy and its minions have poisoned the research that informs the experts, and public debate, too. Sound research complying with scientific method is suppressed (Rind, Bauserman, et al), books are banned and burned (Harmful to Minors: the perils of protecting children from sex, by Judith Levine), and even lawyers are lynched for their insolence in speaking out.

    Moreover, each of these poisons compounds the others exponentially – a kind of E=MC-squared formula for the erosion of liberty by the forces of fascism.

    Speaking of Liberty, where are they when you need them?

  2. The theme of Barbara Hewson’s article is, hysteria is poisoniong process and therefore distorting justice, and the reaction to her article provides reliable evidence to support her case.

    Given the crucial role of barristers and their integrity as guardians of process, once their intimidation is tolerated and becomes acceptable, surely the independence of the judiciary is under threat? You have been checked, and are fewer moves away from totalitarian checkmate.

    When is Barbara Hewson’s chambers and the rest of your profession going to listen to you, guard its independence more jealously, and circle the wagons? Where is the letter to the Times, even?

    Thankfully, the lady is not for turning. She refused to retract, or you would be collectively compromised further. Is she the only one with any balls among you?

  3. Apologies for not referring you to what I meant by intimidation.

    http://www.spiked-online.com/site/article/13612/

    The NSPCC sent Barbara Hewson an e-mail which demanded – with menaces – that she reword or withdraw her article in Spiked. Hence the Soviet analogy: the application of extra-judicial pressure to impose censorship and punishment on any citizen who dissents from the Party line.

    The NSPCC has lost no time in carrying out its threats, rallying its mates in the BBC and the rest of the big media to demonize Ms Hewson, turning her chambers against her, actively trying to destroy her career, and inciting, or at least further inflaming, a misogynistic lynch mob.

    This is disturbing enough: behaviour which falls within the NSPCC’s own definition of bullying. To adopt the NSPCC’s own language and tactics, how do we know this is not the ‘tip of an iceberg’? How many other citizens does this ‘charity’ routinely intimidate?

    What makes the bullying of Barbara Hewson even more disturbing, of course, is the attempted adbridgement of her right and duty to fulfill the oath that she swore to defend the rule of law. Surely, the integrity of the British justice system depends on this right being held sacred?

    1. I don’t want to be pedantic but I don’t actually think a barrister swears any particular oath Jed, I certainly don’t remember doing so. And I’m not sure the Soviet analogy is particularly helpful. But I do agree that there is a real threat to free speech when people are frightened to express serious thoughts about serious issues because of the deluge of abuse that is then heaped on them.

  4. Please feel free to correct my errors! Perhaps ‘undertaking’ is more accurate? The censorious e-mail suggests there is somewhat about Yewtree that someone doesn’t want to be exposed. I hope someone investigates!

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