Yet another High Court case about a flawed set of Achieving Best Evidence interviews. It is more than a little dispiriting that 30 years on from the principles of ABE having been carefully crafted to do exactly what it says on the tin, Achieve the Best Evidence, I can’t recall a reported case where the Judge praises the quality of the ABE interview, but dozens where they have been awful.
In this case
EF, GH, IJ (care proceedings)  EWFC 75 (06 December 2019)
Three boys had made allegations of sexual abuse and physical abuse against their father and their paternal grandparents. Some of those allegations involved the abuse happening within secret rooms at the grandparents home.
That’s not the trickiest thing in the world to investigate to see if it checks out. Is there or is there not a secret room at the grandparents home? Rather than checking that out, the officer instead conducted 23 ABE interviews (six each with two of the boys, and eleven with the third)
In giving evidence, the officer told the Court that if she had not retired and handed the case over to another officer (whom the Court exonerated from any blame) she would have continued to interview the children if they still wanted to talk.
- Katrine Andrews retired as a police officer in September 2018 although her last working day was 14th July 2018. She was the officer in charge of this case from October 2017 to the date of her retirement. Accordingly, for ease of reference in this judgment I shall refer to her as DC Andrews.
- A recurring theme of her evidence was that:
- i) she had a very heavy caseload and usually carried 17 to 21 live investigations in addition to this case;
ii) all of the other officers in the protection unit were, at that time, similarly overburdened with heavy caseloads;
iii) she did not approach any of her senior officers to seek additional help and/or support; and
iv) she considered she had undertaken her investigation into this case to the best of her skill in light of the heavy burden of work she had had to manage.
- She thought the interview conducted by PC Morris with EF on 21st September 2017 had been video recorded, even though she must have known there was no such facilities at the police station where she was based.
- She confirmed she had asked all three of the boys to complete a timeline outside the confines of an ABE interview. She considered it would take too long to undertake this exercise during an ABE interview. She seemingly had given not a moment’s thought or consideration of the risk of the boys’ accounts being contaminated if they prepared a timeline outside of a formal ABE interview. She told me there were ‘no problems’ with asking a child to prepare a timeline (outside of the confines of an ABE interview) before interviewing the child because it gives an interview structure.
- She told me that EF, GH and IJ appeared to be happy to talk, so she just let them talk. She said she was victim-led and she would not stop a child talking if the child wanted to talk.
She was asked whether she considered 6 ABE interviews with EF, 11 with GH and 6 with IJ were manifestly excessive? I would not stop interviewing them, she said, until the children wanted to stop talking. I then asked her if she had not retired in June 2018 whether would she have undertaken further ABE interviews with them and, in terms, she said yes. She did not accept that her approach risked encouraging the boys to make allegations but, in a very troubling rider, she added ‘They knew what I was looking for’.
- DC Andrews did not seek the advice nor the approval of her senior officers to undertake this number of interviews with these three boys. Further, I could not discern from the investigation log:
- i) any evidence that a more senior officer had held supervision sessions with DC Andrews; or
ii) any senior officer had undertaken any review of the conduct of and the progress of the investigation.
- She was pressed time and again for why she had not taken any substantive step to investigate the case other than by conducting interviews with the children (e.g. a visit/search of the paternal grandparents’ home to discover if there were ‘secret rooms’ in the property). Every time she responded that she had planned to do so only when she had finished interviewing the boys.
- There is no reference to planning or preparation by the officer in the investigation log. She boldly told me that she never wrote down her planning or preparation whether in the log or elsewhere. Save for asking the boys to each write a timeline and for booking the video suite for their ABE interviews, I could not discern that this officer undertook any planning or preparation. DC Andrews told me she had asked the boys, when writing their timeline to recall the first and last incidents of abuse and then they were to choose the ‘worst’ ones in between. There is no reference to this conversation in the investigation log which the officer claimed resulted from having a heavy workload.
- She did accept she should have told the boys about writing the timeline rather than to have delegated the task to the mother.
- One matter the officer did find time to record in the investigation log was her observation that the boys appeared to find the experience of multiple and extremely lengthy ABE interviews ‘cathartic’.
- The officer asserted that the mother had told her in November 2017 that the boys were making allegations of physical and sexual abuse. This is curious because the evidence of the mother and of EF is that the first of the boys to make an allegation of sexual abuse was EF to SC on 27th December 2017. The conversation is not recorded on the investigation log because of work overload.
- When it was put to her that her investigation had serially breached the ABE Guidance, she denied it. When it was put to her that she had undertaken an incompetent and negligent investigation, she denied it and added ‘I got a lot of information out of them’.
- At the conclusion of DC Andrews’ evidence, I gave her fair warning that I would likely to be highly critical of her conduct of this investigation. I told her that if she wished to instruct solicitors or counsel to make submissions as to whether:
- i) I should not be critical of her conduct; and/or
ii) I should not name her in the judgment,
I would be prepared to receive and take account of the same. She chose not to do so.
Having waived that right to instruct solicitors, some negative findings unsurprisingly came the way of DC Andrews
- The role played by DC Andrews in the lives of this family is hugely significant. It was plain from her oral evidence and police investigation log that she had given no consideration to the ABE Guidance at any time during her involvement with EF, GH and IJ. Rather, she breached most aspects of the Guidance and of accepted good practice when interviewing children and young people.
- I refer to the following principal breaches:
- i) DC Andrews undertook no planning or preparation prior to any interview with the boys;
ii) the ABE interviews were excessively lengthy and instructed;
iii) there was little or no use of open questions;
iv) the boys were asked via their mother, and not by DC Andrews herself, to compile a timeline. She told them to think of the earliest allegation and then of the last and then to choose the ‘worst’ ones in between;
v) she had decided not construct a timeline with each of the boys during an ABE interview because it would have been too time-consuming;
vi) because she was victim-led and had to believe the boys’ allegations, she saw nothing wrong or inappropriate in undertaking 6 interviews with EF, then aged 15, 11 with GH, then aged 12, and 6 with IJ, then aged 10;
vii) there is no evidence of her undertaking the interviews of the boys or of the father with an open mind;
viii) she inappropriately praised the children during the course of the interviews;
ix) the ABE interviews of the boys proceeded on the basis of going through the boys’ timelines – in effect a tick box exercise;
x) there was no consideration of the context in which these allegations came to be made nor for the escalation in the same both in the seriousness of the allegations and expansion in the number of people against whom allegations were made;
xi) save for the most rudimentary enquiries, no enquiries were made by DC Andrews to indicate or prove whether the boys’ allegations were true or false, in whole or in part;
xii) DC Andrews gave no consideration to the impact of the therapeutic counselling two of the boys were receiving; and
xiii) she failed to seek the advice of superior officers and/or their permission to undertake what I consider to be a manifestly excessive number of unjustifiably lengthy ABE interviews.
- An element of common sense and good practice was only brought to this case when DC Hopkins took over as the officer in charge of the case in July 2018. He put a stop to any further interviews with the boys. For this decision he came under wholly inappropriate pressure from the mother and UV to undertake further interviews with the boys. It is to his credit that he resisted.
- Perhaps the most concerning aspect of DC Andrews’ role and the most egregious aspect of her conduct of this investigation was her comment in her oral evidence that the boys ‘knew what I was looking for’.
- It was submitted on behalf of the father that the police investigation was conducted negligently. I do not agree. It was conducted in an utterly incompetent manner which I find was harmful to the three children. DC Andrews’ conduct of the ABE interviews played a very significant role in the boys’ allegations increasing in number and severity and to include other paternal family members. One of the reasons EF gave for making false allegations was the role played by DC Andrews.
- I was advised by the legal department of the West Midlands Police that in 2017 and now, it was not the policy of the force nor the training given to the officers that children must be believed when they make allegations: the advice is to keep an open mind.
- The West Midlands Police do not, however, escape criticism. There is no evidence of DC Andrews receiving any or any effective supervision during the 11 months in which she was the officer in charge of the case. How she was permitted to conduct this investigation in such an incompetent and harmful manner for such a protracted time is beyond me and, in my view, inexcusable.
I would not for a second suggest that conducting an ABE is an easy task. I certainly couldn’t do it. It requires a huge amount of skill and expertise and training. It requires both planning and the ability to think on one’s feet and adjust your strategy to what is emerging or not emerging. You need to be mindful that the circumstances in genuine child abuse can often make for bewildering and confused accounts AND that there are circumstances that lead to children giving untruthful accounts, and be able to keep both possibilities in mind. It is hard. But we can and must do better. Children deserve better. Their parents deserve better. Too often we see the attitude that the ABE principles are more honoured in the breach than the observance, and too little understanding of the fundamental reasons why they arose at all. If someone is setting down to interview a child to see whether they have been abused, the Achieving Best Evidence framework is there to protect the child and to give the best possible chance of what emerges from that interview being the truth, whichever way it points. We discard those principles or play around the edges of them at our peril.