A respected criminal barrister, Robert Colover, has been suspended from prosecuting sex cases and has had his name dragged through the mud. He has been called a disgrace, a scumbag, a mysogonist, a nonce and worse. Whatever the outcome of the present inquiry he will be for ever known as the barrister who called a child victim a “predator”.
The reason for all this was a routine sentencing hearing earlier this month at Snaresbrook Crown Court at which Neil Wilson, a 41 year old man with no relevant previous convictions, was given an 8 month suspended sentence, together with a supervision order under which he was required to attend a Sex Offenders’ Treatment Programme, for sexual activity with a 13 year old child.
The facts of the case, very briefly, seem to be that having met Mr Wilson in Romford town centre the girl told him that she was, first of all 16, and then later “nearly 16”. She was in fact 13. They went back to Mr Wilson’s home. No crime was committed at that point, but they kept in touch and subsequently arranged to meet again at his house. What happened there was described by Mr Colover in dry factual language, based, as it had to be (there being no complaint from the girl), on Mr Wilson’s account.
Mr Wilson told her that there could be no relationship and asked her to leave. She left the room and returned wearing just a T-shirt. Some sexual activity took place between them before he again asked her to leave at which point she got dressed and left. Those who wish to know exactly what occurred can now look at the transcript of the proceedings.
Bearing in mind that there had been an early guilty plea and frank admissions from Mr Wilson the sentence was within the guidelines for offences of this sort, albeit right at the bottom of the suggested sentencing range. Although the Attorney-General has announced that he is to ask the Court of Appeal to review the sentence, it is not the leniency of the sentence but the words of the prosecution barrister that have excited the most comment, most of it highly uncomplimentary to Mr Colover.
There is nothing the British public likes better than to climb onto the moral high ground and pontificate about sex cases in general and in particular the way that they are dealt with in court. The general line to take whenever either a short sentence is passed, or a barrister or judge says something foolish, is straightforward. “Paedophilia not taken seriously enough … barristers and judges sexist and out of touch … sentences too short … something must be done.” There is seldom any recognition that barristers, being human beings, are just as against sexual offending as anybody else, and just as prone to make silly mistakes.
Emily Thornberry, the shadow Attorney-General, was quick off the mark.
“It is appalling that after the scandals of Jimmy Savile and Rochdale these awful Lolita prejudices are still being served up in court, and by the prosecution of all people.”
Needless to say the rush to premature judgement was joined by the doyenne of tut-tutters Polly Toynbee, who produced a slap-dash, error-strewn piece in The Guardian, later partially corrected, accusing the unfortunate Mr Colover “QC” (which he is not) of saying:
“the girl ‘was ‘predatory in all her actions’ and ‘sexually experienced’.”
Although it would have taken just a few moment’s research to show that not only had the girl not given evidence she had not even made a formal complaint, Ms Toynbee spoke movingly, if inaccurately, of how “the child endured the pain, shame and humiliation of giving evidence in court,” before, she opined, being “traduced” by the judge and Mr Colover, and “watching while her abuser walked free with a suspended sentence”. Having attributed, in quotation marks, two further phrases to Mr Colover – “egging him on” and “performed a sex act on him”, neither of which he used – she strongly implied, without quite saying so explicitly, that Mr Colover was a misogynist.
Over 50,000 people have signed an online petition condemning Mr Colover’s description of a 13 year old girl as a “sexual predator.”
Anyone who wants to judge for themselves whether Ms Toynbee’s and others’ accusations were entirely fair can again read the transcript. Whilst Mr Colover might rightly be blamed for some of what he said, many will feel that some of the comments were grossly unfair.
The words that got Mr Colover into hot water were originally reported thus in (for example) the Daily Mail:
“[Mr Colover] told Snaresbrook Crown Court in London that the girl ‘forced’ herself on Wilson, describing her as ‘predatory in all her actions’ and ‘sexually experienced’.
He said: ‘She appeared to look around 14 or 15 and had the mental age of a 14 or 15-year-old. There was sexual activity but it was not of Mr Wilson’s doing.
‘You might say it was forced upon him despite his being older and stronger than her.’”
Although this is set out as direct speech, comparison with the official transcript reveals that almost none of it was actually said by Mr Colover.
According to the transcript he did not say that the girl “forced herself on Mr Wilson.” The word “forced” does not appear anywhere in the transcript. Nor, for good measure, does it contain the phrase “despite his being older and stronger than her.”
According to the transcript he did not say that the girl “looked around 14 or 15 and had the mental age of a 14 or 15 year old.” In fact, Mr Colover himself said nothing about how old she looked, and nobody made any reference to her “mental age”. What actually happened was that the judge asked a perfectly reasonable question, which was answered, as it happens, not by Mr Colover at all but by a police officer who had presumably been involved in the investigation.
JUDGE PETERS: Are we talking about a 13 looking 13, looking 16, looking 10?
MR COLOVER: Your Honour, she said to him according to the police interview she told him initially that she was 16 and then she said “I am nearly 16”.
JUDGE PETERS: Yes. The real question is, in the officer’s opinion, what does she look like?
THE OFFICER: Your Honour, I would say 14, 15. In my
experience of —
JUDGE PETERS: That is when you saw her.
THE OFFICER: 14, 15 years of age.
JUDGE PETERS: Did she, again, it does not in any way seek to lessen the position in this case, but does she speak like a 14, 15 year old or a 12 year old or an 18 year old? It is very important.
THE OFFICER: I would say she speaks like a 14, 15 year old.
JUDGE PETERS: And she is 13?
THE OFFICER: Yes.
THE JUDGE: All right. Thank you.
MR COLOVER: She certainly appears on the face of it to behave as somebody who is very much more sexually experienced; that we can confirm, both from what he says and what she says…
In other words, if there is proper criticism to be made of the observation that she looked 14 or 15 (and I would suggest that there is not), it is a criticism that should be made of the police officer and not of Mr Colover.
His comment that she “appears … to behave as somebody who is very much more sexually experienced …” in its context obviously meant “appears more experienced than a typical 13 year old.” It perhaps did not need to be said, not least because it was obviously true. The question – as the judge said an important one – to which the observation related, was how reasonable Mr Wilson’s view was that she was “nearly 16” rather than 13.
According to the transcript the phrase “there was sexual activity but it was not of Mr Wilson’s doing” was not used by Mr Colover.
He did, however, use the word “predatory”. In answer to a question from the Judge, who asked him to confirm that the activity between her and Mr Wilson was “consensual” he said:
MR COLOVER: Yes, your Honour. Very much so, and she is undoubtedly it is fair to say very experienced, and one hesitates to use the word, but it is a word that has been used in other cases, I think the officer would agree that she may well be what is described as predatory in respect of her activities.
He was certainly wrong to have used the word “predatory”, but any fair-minded observer would have to agree that the somewhat hesitant way he employed it, carried considerably less force than the phrase attributed to him, not least by Ms Toynbee, which the transcript suggests he did not use: “predatory in all her actions” or “a sexual predator”.
Thousands of people, led by Polly Toynbee, have rushed to criticise Mr Colover based on quotations which are, if not wrong, then at the very least questionable. Clearly a mistake was made by Mr Colover in his presentation of the case. I can sympathise with him: it is often extremely difficult to find the right word to use to describe someone’s behaviour, and remarkably easy to find the wrong one.
But what the critics forget in their rush to judgement is that even middle-aged, male barristers can be wounded and damaged by criticism that is unfair and to which they are for practical and professional reasons unable to respond. If you prick us, do we not bleed? A single word wrongly chosen in the heat of the moment in court can have terrible consequences for individuals, but so too can thoughtless tweets, blogs and even carefully crafted opinion pieces by highly respected columnists. If a barrister is said to be traducing – to use Ms Toynbee’s word – an anonymous girl, then so too can a columnist traduce a barrister by ill-informed. inaccurate and lazy comment.