The Statute of Limitations: Legislated injustice.
A time limit on reporting child sexual abuse is literally a foreign concept, as the UK has no such restriction, but in most European countries victims are still subject to a deadline on disclosing to the police, otherwise the crime technically expires and their testimony is ignored.
All European nations are party to the European Convention on Human Rights in which it was agreed that in the determination of his civil right every citizen is entitled to a fair a public hearing. Also, in the UN declaration on the rights of victims of crimes, which was adopted by the general assembly in 1985, it was again agreed that all victims have the right to access the mechanism of justice for the harm they have suffered. This outdated law not only violates all victims basic human rights, it is creating an urgent child protection crisis, with numerous known sex offenders left in contact with other children.
The limitation is different in almost every nation. The average is ten years once the victims turns eighteen, effectively giving survivors until age twenty-eight to press charges (Luxembourg, Finland, Estonia etc.) In 2012, Germany extended theirs to thirty years once they turn twenty-one, effectively increasing the deadline for making a report from age twenty eight to age fifty-one, yet in the Czech Republic, have a nebulous system where the limitation relates to the length of prison sentence the crime would receive.
I met with every Government, Parliament and Ombudsman who would let me speak, and thus the project successfully encouraged review of this problem in eight individual countries. For example, after only three days of my first meeting with an MP in Slovakia, I was invited to speak at a press conference at the Parliament in Bratislava, were they announced the launch of a motion to abolish their limitation. Their Ombudsman also recommended the abolition be added to a new national strategy being drawn up to tackle CSA.
Speaking at a press conference in Budapest, during the International Victims Day Conference, I stated before their national media that if my uncle had sexually abused me in their country they would not have arrested him. They insisted that this was not true but according to their legislation, which had been shown to me by the head of crime prevention in the Hungarian police, my statement was accurate. Nine months later, Hungary's parliament voted in favour of abolishing their limitation. I received private messages from personnel from within their Judicial and Child welfare systems, who had been present at the conference, thanking me for exposing the problem so publicly that day.
The abolition has similarly been taken into further discussion in Malta, Portugal, Romania and all three Baltic countries but the real turning point on the walk happened in Zagreb. I met with their Ombudsman to request the abolition but was told this was impossible, as they had only recently created the limitation. They explained that as Croatia ratified the Lanzarote Convention they were required to introduce a limitation. I was sure this was inaccurate.
The Lanzarote Convention was created by the Council of Europe in 2007, signed by all forty-seven member-states and currently ratified by thirty-four, it is treaty containing 55 excellent measures for improving prevention of child sexual abuse and exploitation. Article 33 pertains to the Statute of Limitations, stating that the countries limitation must allow enough time for the victim to make a police report. Croatia had no limitation but as Article 33 is written on the assumption that your country does, they interpreted it to mean they must implement one.
I decided to take this discovery to the Council of Europe, and not only request a clarification of the intent of Article 33 but to amend it entirely, stating that for reasons of child protection all member states must immediately abolish any limitation on victims reporting child sexual abuse.
From Zagreb I walked to Geneva as I had been invited to give the keynote speech on a discussion called 'Child protection through legislation', during the United Nations Human Rights Council Conference. I highlighted the situation with the Statute of Limitations and presented my ABC plans for reform.
Plan A: Encourage the Council of Europe to amend Article 33 to recommend immediate abolition. This would enhance human rights across a territory of 820 million people.
Plan B: Encourage the European Parliament to create a new directive mandating the abolition. The MP who had adopted my suggestions and launched a motion in the Slovakian parliament had become an MEP in the seven months I had been walking since Bratislava. I could call on his support but even if successful this would only change legislation for 500 million people.
Plan C: Collect one million signatures to have the abolition tabled within the European Parliament.
Next, I reached Strasbourg and was joined for a walk by the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Thorborg Jegland. I explained the situation to him and he agreed it needed to be discussed. The next opportunity to address the entire committee of the Lanazrote Convention would be after I had reached Edinburgh.
In February 2015, I completed the walk then in June I flew back to Strasbourg to finally make my presentation before all member state nations requesting the amendment to Article 33.
Their response to my request will take perhaps another year, though with various countries currently already in the process of abolition the outlook is hopeful. Fortunately, while I was making my presentation for the Council of Europe, the United Nations were also in Strasbourg holding international cross-regional discussions of child protection and they invited me to chair a debate. I was now speaking on a global platform with representatives present from eighty countries and heads of global NGOs such as UNICEF and ECPAT. The United Nations are presently contrasting a global development strategy for 2016 and I have requested the abolition be included. The idea was welcomed and talks continue.
Personal Experience - The injustice of justice.
During a meeting with a member of the Lanzarote Committee in Strasbourg, I hit upon an alarming realisation about the case against my uncle. I was asking them to seek to secure that abolition of the Statute of Limitations be mandated across all forty-seven European nations and she objected, suggesting that removing the limitation could give survivors false hope of a conviction, as she believed that a case that does not end in conviction might be more damaging for the survivor than not having sought justice at all. I was bewildered by this perspective. Many cases do not proceed to court because they do not have enough supporting evidence but according to our agreed human rights, every citizen has the right to seek to access the mechanisms for justice for the harm the have suffered. We do have the right to make that police report, then like any crime it is then the behest of the Procurator Fiscal wither the case has weight enough to proceed, but every survivor must be allowed to have their statement taken, and not automatically ignored based on the date of the offence. She saw my logic but I was still bemused by her previous stance that we should not allow survivors to even attempt to press charges unless we are sure they will have a successful case. It was then that it dawned on me how unusual the case against my uncle had been, in that it had gone comparatively smoothly in relation to the far greater majority of cases.
Firstly the entire process, from us making our statement to the judge sentencing him, was only eighteen months. My uncle also pled guilty, on the advise of his lawyer after they examined the weight of evidence we had against him. My brothers and I could describe intimate details of his anatomy, although we had never discussed this between ourselves. This meant none of us were subjected to being cross examined in a public court. The only time we were questioned on his conduct was back when we gave the initial police statement. It did mean however that he received the maximum reduction on his sentence, shortening it from nine to six years, of which I believe he only served four.
One of my brothers is still regularly medicated for depression and continues to have occasional psychotic episodes, which affect his marriage and his own children's lives to this day. Was our uncle sitting in prison for four years in anyway redressing this? I try not to concern myself with opinions on how weak sentencing undermines the very idea of justice. My only wish was for our uncle to be unable to abuse any more children and I trust that once he was let out of prison, our systems would still ensure this. Regardless, our case had been relatively straightforward and had a successful outcome. Ironically, this was not the ideal experience for me to then become an advocate for encouraging every other survivors to report their offender. Unwittingly, I was regarding the judicial system through the rose-tinted spectacles of an unusually simple case. This never occurred to me until I was facing one of the people who could influence a legislative reform for 820 million people. I now appreciate that we had been extremely fortunate and most cases do not run as uneventfully as ours had. Still, I will not refrain from encouraging survivors to report their offender, especially if that person is still in contact with children.
Email: Julie Crawford, Julie.Crawford@gov.scot
Phone: 0300 244 4000 – Central Enquiry Unit
The Scottish Government
St Andrew's House