Friday, 3 July 2015

The Parish Hall Inquiry

As the Jersey Evening Post reported:

"It emerged that a paedophile who was handed a life sentence after carrying out a sustained campaign of rape and sexual assault had appeared several times at parish hall inquiries in the past for a range of alleged sex offences against children."

"It emerged during his sentencing that although Bartlett had no relevant previous convictions, he had three prior incidents of ‘sexual misbehaviour’ between 1986 and 1995 all of which were dealt with by parish hall inquiry."

"The judgment said: ‘Almost certainly those cases would today have been charged and indeed would have been referred up to the Royal Court by the Magistrate.’"

Parish Hall inquiries in the 1980s could be rather informal affairs. I knew of someone who had left their car in a public car park, not realising that it counted as liable under the law for not having an up-to-date road tax disc - this was in the days when the law required an annual disc to be paid for and displayed. They thought it only applied if they took the car out of the car park onto the road.

The inquiry, where the Constable of the Parish was present, was a rather informal matter, no charges made, no notes taken, and the person in question, who was known to the Constable, was just told by the Constable to ensure they got their disc as soon as possible. It was a caution, but not in any formal manner. There was not even any requirement to check that the required action had been done.

Logs are kept now, and minutes are taken of the meetings, where there are two members of the Honorary Police present, one as witness to the meeting. Being a member of the honorary police now requires a lot more work, and adherence to legal guidelines. This is best explained in a recent letter by Peter Pearce in the JEP:

Letter From Peter Pearce.

As a former Centenier I read your leader `Did parish inquiry fail victim?' (JEP 12 February 2015) with interest.

It is clear that there is a basic misunderstanding of the functions and proceedings at a parish hall inquiry.

Firstly it should be understood that the parish hall inquiry is part of the formal criminal justice system. There are checks and balances all the way - to make the suggestion that the offender was `given the benefit of the doubt by an honorary system' is impossible. The report of an offence of this nature is covered by the prescribed offences legislation and therefore has to be investigated by the States Police. They send a report to the parish concerned with a police inspector's recommendation of further action.

When the duty Centenier receives a report his task at the Parish hall inquiry is manifold.

Within rigid guidelines passed down from the Crown officers he has to first decide if any offence reported to him is sufficiently serious to be taken before the higher authority of the courts. Having satisfied himself of that, he then has to examine the evidence presented to him and make a judgment as to whether or not it is sufficient to obtain a conviction.

If not satisfied he can return the matter to the States police for further investigation. When satisfied he can charge the offender and present the case before the court.

In all these deliberations he has access to advice available, should he require it, from the Crown Officers or the police legal adviser.

But there are further considerations. At a parish hall inquiry involving a child as witness to the offences briefly described, the Centenier has to consider the child's vulnerability, credibility and ability to stand up to possible aggressive cross-examination by defence counsel. A representative of the children's office would be present and to advise as to the desirability or otherwise of that child being in court as a witness and so prolonging, re-affirming and cementing those, maybe horrific, moments in the child's memories. Also, with a minor, the parents might exercise their right and not allow their child to give evidence.

In this sort of case the probation service, and other professionals, would have interviewed the offender and would make recommendations as to preventing re-offending and possible non-court based sanctions. A probation officer would attend and offer advice. Consideration of all these factors and more might result in a multiple year `voluntary' supervisory probation order being made by the Centenier with the threat of further action in the case of non-compliance by the offender.

All these factors would be recorded and passed to the States Police Criminal Records Office, the local equivalent, and part of what you refer to as the national police database more correctly called the Police National Database (PND) on the Police National Computer (PNC). It was from this office that the bare facts presented to the Royal Court came. On receipt of the result of the parish hall inquiry report the states police review the decision and have the right to appeal through the Crown Officers if they feel justice has not been served.

In my experience Centeniers make very few decisions that vary greatly from the recommendations they receive. My personal method when this rarity occurred was to seek out the reporting police officer, who had done all the hard work of the investigation, and talk through the case so that we reached a mutual understanding of each other's point of view.

I can only recall two instances of this approach failing, but, in both cases the police officers and I still remained friends.

In the UK these decisions are made by the Crown prosecution service and many of the UK based police officers I have discussed these matters with would much prefer to have a system as transparent and answerable as ours.

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