Career fallout from a legal blast 1

October 18, 2002

It is not often that I agree with Richard Webster's views about child abuse but his call for Richard Barker, who led the Shieldfield inquiry, to resign from Northumbria University or be dismissed deserves the fullest support ("Why he must go", THES , October 11).

Webster does not mention, however, Barker's view, as reported in the same issue ("Was it a mistake or malice?") that the judgment against him and fellow defendants in July's libel action implies that the inquiries of the sort his team conducted might in future only be done by lawyers used to the court room.

Dozens of child abuse inquiries have been chaired by people from a variety of backgrounds, including distinguished lawyers such as Sir Louis Blom-Cooper and (now) Judge Stephen Sedley. They have not conducted their inquiries in the manner of "the court room", unless one counts a detailed concern for evidence.

Where inquiries have not had a lawyer as chairperson - and most have not - they invariably had a lawyer as part of the team. Shieldfield did not, but surely Barker, as chairperson, could have asked for one? One virtue of lawyers is a regard for the facts.

People should not shy away from conducting inquiries because of what happened to Barker and his team. There is a firm emphasis in child abuse investigations by social workers that children should be listened to. Ironically, in this case when some children said what the inquiry apparently did not want to hear - that they had not been abused - they were not listened to.

The fault lies not in the inquiry system but in the way it was conducted.

Barker says: "This case isn't really about me, it is about all the trauma that so many families have been through over so many years." This is misleading. It could imply that there was the widespread abuse that the inquiry claimed but for which a criminal trial found no evidence.

In fact, the initial investigations and trial created trauma but the way that Barker's inquiry dealt with its task only added to that. Instead of self-serving statements, he would be better advised to apologise to those families and to the two workers whose lives have been ruined.

Terry Philpot
Limpsfield, Surrey

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