Written by Josh Taaffe,Partner, in-house counsel & Accredited Specialist
The last thing our client thought would happen when he went to the Royal Commission and told the story of the sexual abuse he had suffered as a child was that he himself would end up charged with child sexual offences said to have taken place more than 40 years ago.
Our client was charged with having unlawful carnal knowledge of a woman (who was now in her 50s), which allegedly had occurred when she was 15 years old. The complainant alleged that our client had picked her up from school one day and taken her back to his house, had sex with her and then dropped her back to her parents and siblings.
These allegations came to light after our client had given evidence and agreed for his statement to be made public by the Royal Commission about an Anglican Minister who lived with his family in the same local community. Our client had suffered through years of abuse at the hands of the Priest, whilst he was an altar boy at the local church. Like so many who have given evidence before the Royal Commission, our client’s life had been irrevocably damaged by the events; it would be something he would carry with him for the rest of his life. There were a number of people in the community who were angered by our client’s evidence even though there was evidence of other children being abused and one committing suicide.
From the date of first charge, to the end of a trial, he stood to lose many years of his life going through the court process. Worse than that, if he was found guilty, he would be facing an immediate term of imprisonment and registration as a sex offender. His family, friends and livelihood hung in the balance. It seemed a cruel twist of fate for a victim of horrific child sexual abuse at the hands of the clergy.
Our client approached our firm after having originally been represented from a small suburban solicitor’s office. Like so many of our clients facing allegations of historical sex offences, his first contact with the criminal justice system came in his 60s. Having had no need for a defence lawyer before, he turned to his local solicitors who just didn’t have the resources, expertise or experience necessary to run historical sex cases.
Our client denied having sex with the complainant when she was 15. When interviewed by police he told them that he had consensual sex with the complainant when they were both adults. Our client raised the history between him and the complainant’s father in his interview – this was the first the police had head that part of the story.
Our client pleaded not guilty. A contested committal was fast approaching and time was of the essence. The police investigation had been concluded and the allegations were being pursued with the full resources of the State. It was therefore necessary to carry out a thorough defence investigation in order to look at potential timelines and locations as these could be used to discredit the complainant’s version of events.
The complainant had stated to police that the sexual offence had occurred in a house which she had given a detailed description of. Historical title searches and floor plans were located and diagrams were drawn up, to show that the houses our client had lived in did not even remotely fit the description of the house the complainant had described so carefully.
Partner Josh Taaffe and Director Bill Doogue travelled to each of the locations relevant to the investigation. The distances and timing between each location was measured and filmed, with important geographical observations noted and photos taken of key locations.
Historical newspaper clippings were found to show that the complainant had spoken about places in her statement that did not exist at the time the offence was said to have occurred.
Solicitor Sophie Stafford began compiling detailed timelines in relation to each of the relevant witnesses and events that were said to have taken place. Our client was taken through each and every sentence of the brief of evidence and each of the witness statements. These detailed instructions were used to construct chronologies our client’s life, focusing in on the years where this offence was said to have occurred.
Sophie took statements from friends of the accused who had heard the complainant talking about the allegations they had made against our client. These statements detailed the changing account of what was said to have happened. We had soon gathered a number of statements where the complainant had significantly changed her version of what had happened.
Additional disclosure was sought from the prosecution, including copies of the investigating police officer’s diary and extracts from the police database that related to the investigation. These disclosures revealed that the original allegation made by the complainant to police had been of a completely different nature. This revealed yet another different and inconsistent version of events by the complainant.
Family photographs and videos were gathered to show that after the offence was said to have occurred, the complainant continued to see our client. These materials provided the perfect basis to attack the complainant’s credibility in cross-examination by Josh Taaffe at the committal.
Firstly, the complainant said that she had stayed away from the accused after the alleged sexual assault because she wanted nothing to do with him. However we could prove through the evidence we had gathered and our own investigations that they had kept in contact for many years after the alleged offence was said to have occurred. We could prove that they had appeared in newspaper photographs together and that they had each gone to the other’s wedding, many, many years after the alleged offence had occurred. If she was lying about this, what else was she lying about?
The complainant’s reliability and credibility was challenged throughout the committal. In periods of very strange evidence the complainant denied at times that she was aware at all of our client’s allegations against her father whilst at other times admitted to travelling to his house to confront him about the allegations. The complainant:
- answered no comment to numerous questions, as if she had a right not to answer
- said that she though the incident happened when she was in year 11 and 16 or 17
- accepted that she might have taken her clothing off
- accepted that she might have touched the accused before the sex began
After two long days of cross examination, the evidence was concluded.
An application was made by Josh Taaffe to have our client discharged due to insufficient evidence. He argued that through out the contested committal, the complainant had given evidence under cross examination that varied wildly from her statement made to police. He argued that a jury could not be satisfied that this event had ever occurred. Most importantly, based on the historical charge he faced, the prosecution had to prove that this event occurred when the complainant was under the age of 16. Under cross examination, the complainant had given an answer that it happened in year 11, was when she was either 16 or 17. This was fatal to the prosecution case.
The Magistrate discharged the case on the basis that there was insufficient evidence for a jury to convict our client. He walked out of the court room, leaving the events of the last 12 months behind him.
An application for costs was made against the police and was granted. Our client was to be reimbursed for all of his legal fees in defending the charge.