16 March 2018
In the winter of 2016, I had a phone call from a local Family Court lawyer, asking if I would be prepared to act for a young single mother (who here I will call “Bex”); she had two children aged six and nine, and was facing serious charges. Yes, I would, I replied and after getting Bex's number, I phoned and we arranged to meet. Conveniently, Bex lived in Upper Hutt where my chambers are, and it was there that we sat down and I learnt that she had been charged with several counts of "sexual conduct with a young person under 16". (An offence which carries with it a maximum sentence of 10 years in jail.) Now here is the first thing that stood out about this case: Bex is a lesbian. The unlawful sexual connection she had been charged with was allegedly with the 14-year-old son of her lesbian partner.
While at the Police Station during the medical examination Bex is not asked to remove her clothes, and police and the doctor miss the bruises and hand marks left on her back and thighs from where her jeans and underwear were pulled off and from where her legs were forced apart while she slept. Bex thinks it is important to document the bruises, so after her interview, she goes home and stands in front of a full-length mirror in her knickers and with her cell-phone photographs the hand and finger shaped bruises on her body. She thinks, when the Police come back to talk with her, she will give them the photographs then.
After Bex gave her interview, she hears nothing. Weeks go by, and one-day she is asked to come into the Police Station. After work she drives down as arranged. She meets the Detective in a small room. The detective proceeds to tell her they don't believe her and she will be charged. Further, as they do not believe her, this must mean that she told lies to get the teenager charged, so she would also be charged with "conspiring to make a false accusation." Bex is completely shocked. Bex went to Police seeking their help. She was a stranger to the legal system and thought she could trust the Police.
It appears the contradictions between the boy and his friends were never investigated. Several inconsistencies (from many) stand out: the boy said that Bex plied him with large amounts of alcohol during the night as she repeatedly came into his sleepout to rub her buttocks against him, in front of his friends. Yet, during trial and in their statements, his friends were clear that Bex only gave them all one sip from her bottle and that Bex never rubbed her body against their friend. Of note, the friends are clear when the boy came back to the sleepout, he did not to go straight to sleep, but stayed up playing video games with them.
What struck me, however, was that in preparing for this case, I found the Police failed a victim, conducted a forensically weak investigation and were aided in this by a system increasingly geared to making the job of defence lawyers even harder and by extension increasingly hostile to protections like the presumption of innocence.
The Jury when confronted with all this, returned the only verdicts that were reasonably available, "Not Guilty" to all charges. While relieved, I still believe that this case should never have got this far. Bex and her complaint deserved better than this. Meanwhile there is a now 16-year-old in our midst who thinks he can get away with what he did.