The children’s commissioner for England has suggested lowering the burden of proof in cases of child sex abuse, arguing that the current system is “not fit for purpose”.
Anne Longfield’s proposal follows a ruling by a family court judge that 13-month-old Poppy Worthington was, on the civil standard of balance of probabilities, sexually assaulted by her father just before her death in 2012.
Paul Worthington, 48, who has denied harming his daughter, did not face criminal charges after police failures in the first investigation, and after the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) deemed there was insufficient evidence from a second police inquiry to prove his guilt under the criminal standard of beyond reasonable doubt.
Longfield told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “What this case really sharply illustrates is the difficulty there is in giving evidence in the case of child sex abuse, especially within the family.
“We know that the vast majority of cases aren’t reported in the first place, but even those that are reported, the vast majority don’t go to court because the evidence just isn’t there. And when looking at the burden of beyond reasonable doubt, it’s very sharply in contrast to the kind of ruling we saw from the judge last week, which is about balance of probability.”
Asked whether Worthington’s case was more about the police’s failure to collect evidence, she said officers should and could have done better. But, she added, the level of evidence needed in cases of familial child sex abuse was not usually available because they were not reported until a long time after the event. This meant forensic evidence was unavailable and/or the accounts of alleged victims could be muddled.
“We need to understand that if we are serious about tackling child sexual abuse, we need to better decide what does constitute good evidence and that’s something not for me, for the police; it’s for social services, it’s for the judiciary,” she said.
“It doesn’t mean a wholesale move over to a ruling by a judge and wholesale embracement of [balance of] probability but it does mean we need to look at improving a system that isn’t fit for purpose for those that are experiencing sexual abuse.”
In his judgment, made public last week, Mr Justice Peter Jackson found that Worthington had abused Poppi in the hours before she died. He also concluded that the investigation into her death was hindered by police errors.
Amid the uproar after Jackson’s ruling was published, the CPS, which had previously refused to review its files on Worthington’s case, announced that it would re-examine the evidence.