Simon Warr was a languages teacher who was accused of historic sexual abuse of three of his pupils.
The allegations were not, as these things go, particularly serious, although that was of little comfort. The worst was that in the 1980s he had handled a boy’s genitals under the pretext of making sure he had showered properly after PE. Although he had taught in the school, he had never taught the boy (“A”) in question, never taught PE and had no recollection of A at all. After he made his complaint to the police Mr Warr was arrested and bailed. He spent 664 days between arrest and trial. He lost his job – technically a resignation, but in effect a forced one – and the school house in which he was living and he was declared persona non grata on the school premises, cut out, he says, like a cancerous tumour. Two complainants also went to the police – or perhaps it would be more accurate to say the police came to them – with seemingly corroborative complaints, although in he end they proved to be as much contradictory as corroborative.
It is a story that, in its general outline, is all too familiar to criminal lawyers these days. Historic sexual allegations form the bread and butter – and jam too – of many a criminal practice, and Crown Court judges – once they receive the not particularly coveted “sex ticket” – try such cases in grim procession. The strength of Mr Warr’s book is that he is able to articulate the impotent fury of someone falsely accused who has his life all but destroyed while the legal system grinds, with all its predictable delays and adjournments, to its conclusion. Without work to occupy his time, shunned by many former friends and all the time living under the shadow of possible imprisonment and the complete destruction of his reputation, it is unsurprising that – like others in his position – Mr Warr contemplated killing himself.
He is eloquent on the modern addition to this psychological torture: the monstering on social media, a little of which he reproduces in the book, just so we can get a flavour:
“You fucking paedo, go to an underground sewer and kill yourself.”
“I trusted you with my son and was taken in by your supposed professionalism and, all along, you were a pervert. You disgust me.”
“If Warr ever kills himself, it’ll be the best Christmas prezzie ever.”
Another commented that people like Warr should be
“… hung upside down by there (sic) balls till they fall or maybe slowly boiled with mmmm a bit of salt and pepper.”
He quotes Nietzsche; I’ve never felt handicapped by not knowing many of the Prussian Professor’s aphorisms, but his injunction to “distrust all in whom the impulse to punish is strong,” seems a good rule of thumb.
Social media, of course, is not just an additional means of inflicting anguish on suspects, it is also an increasingly common medium through which supposedly independent complainants can communicate and influence each other and potentially, of course, jurors. Teachers seem to be peculiarly vulnerable to angry Facebook groups and the like: in an unrelated but particularly egregious example of the phenomenon, the 97 year old former headmaster Jack Mount (eventually cleared last year after a series of trials, to the fury of his internet adversaries) was hounded by a relentless and seemingly orchestrated Facebook campaign for years. In his case, and to a lesser extent in Mr Warr’s, the existence of an internet campaign was at least obvious. In other cases, the internet provides a potential method for witnesses to communicate privately about a suspect, while preserving the appearance of independence.
Particularly unpleasant too, were the friends who dropped him as soon as the allegations were made; and even they were not as bad as the “friend” who had the gall to ring and leave a voicemail offering moral support, but failed to disconnect the call before telling someone “there’s no smoke without fire.” Fortunately there were real friends – including the Times writer Libby Purves – who helped him through the ordeal. There was even one stranger who comforted him after seeing him at a particularly low ebb on a tube train. He probably has no idea how much his small gesture meant to a man on the edge of self-destruction.
Not everyone will warm to Mr Warr. He sketches out his teaching career without understating his achievements. He points out that during his long teaching career he never caned or struck a single boy: “I ran a boarding house for many years with little more than my forceful personality and loud voice as a support in resolving the myriad disciplinary issues I had to deal with. I doubt this could be applied to many boarding school teachers of the 1980s.” I think he’s almost certainly wrong on the last point – by the 1980s corporal punishment was firmly on the way out. My own father, who also ran a boarding house for 17 years up till 1979, certainly never caned anyone while he did so, and he was not alone. But this is perhaps a quibble.
Slightly more unfortunately there are parts of Warr’s account that do not altogether ring true, perhaps because an effort has been made to rush the book out. He describes his arrest, for example, and quotes the police officer cautioning him with the words of a caution that have long since been superseded. His description of the trial itself is gripping. He describes the humiliating, prejudicial and wholly unnecessary glass cage in which he had to sit, while his false accusers were able to shield themselves from his gaze with screens. Unfortunately he also gets details wrong (although in fairness he includes the disclaimer that he had to rely on his memory because obtaining a full transcript of the trial would have been prohibitively expensive). There is no way, for example, that when he gave evidence he would have been “interrogated first” by the prosecution barrister. Nor is it at all likely that (as he remembers it) the officer in the case would have been called as part of the defence case. I also find it improbable that Mr Warr’s barrister Matthew Gowen (who receives a great deal of obviously well-deserved praise) would have said to him while the jury was out:
“If there are any [convictions] because of the length of time you’ve been on bail and on account of the weakness of the allegations anyway, there’ll be no custodial sentence.”
If this advice was given, it was pretty reckless and almost certainly wrong (a judge cannot lawfully take into account the weakness of allegations when deciding on the sentence), but I suspect that quite understandably, Mr Warr has not remembered it with complete accuracy.
Such errors – not that they are especially important in themselves – do slightly detract from the absolute reliance one would like to place on Mr Warr’s memory. They also demonstrate that human memory is far less reliable than we often realise; a problem that creates great potential difficulty for the criminal justice system, which at present deals with it by pretending it does not exist.
The final section of the book is an argument for changes that Mr Warr would like to see introduced to protect innocent people from false allegations. Amongst his more radical proposals are an “immediate end to the handing out of large sums of compensation payouts … in all but the most heinous crimes,” and a “statute of limitation in all but the most heinous crimes.” There is an argument to be made here although (apart from many other problems) I can see an immediate difficulty in defining the term “most heinous.” Personally, I think there is more to be said for reinvigorating the emasculated doctrine of “abuse of process” which at one time promised to provide a measure of judicial control over the prosecution of very stale cases, but which has since (in this area at least) largely withered into desuetude.
Unfortunately, the tide is not running in favour of those who worry about wrongful convictions. Over the last forty years numerous changes in criminal evidence and procedure have been introduced, and (with the notable and very important exception of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984), almost all of them have favoured the prosecution. This is not intended to be a comprehensive list but here, in no particular order, goes:
Introduction of majority verdicts, abolition of defence right to challenge jurors without cause, abolition of unsworn statements from the dock, introduction of prosecution right to comment on no-comment interviews, abolition of rule that similar fact evidence should show “striking similarity”, introduction of evidence of bad character or propensity, restriction on duty of prosecution to disclose all relevant material, introduction of duty to serve defence statement, restriction of judge’s ability to stop cases proceeding after the passage of long periods of time, introduction of “special measures” (screens, pre-recorded evidence etc) for prosecution witnesses (but not defendants), abolition of defence right to anonymity in sexual cases, restrictions on right to cross-examine on previous sexual history, restrictions on cross-examination of “vulnerable” witnesses, restrictions on legal aid eligibility, restrictions on defence costs recoverable after acquittal;
I could go on. Oh alright then, I will:
Introduction of glass cages to replace old fashioned “open” docks, abolition of corroboration rule in sexual allegations, introduction of the right to draw “adverse inferences” from a defendant’s silence in court, tightening of the law of “consent” in sexual cases, abolition of rule against double jeopardy, introduction of prosecution right to appeal against “terminatory rulings”, introduction of prosecution right to appeal against unduly lenient sentences, abolition of right of Court of Appeal to quash “unsatisfactory” convictions.
Taken individually there was a case for many of these changes; taken together, and especially when applied to historic sexual allegations in an age of internet connectivity, there is every reason to believe that the cumulative effect has been to convict and imprison more innocent people.
Mr Warr’s book is an important reminder that in some cases the real victims are those who are falsely accused, and of the human price that is paid when that happens. Anyone interested in today’s criminal justice system should buy it.
Presumed Guilty by Simon Warr is published by Biteback Publishing. RRP £20.00 or available from Amazon