“How Long Is Too Long” And Placing Time Limitations On Complaints Raises
In the last decade or so there have been a substantial increase in the amount of complaints to authorities of historical sexual abuse arising from incidents allegedly occurring decades previous.
Whilst allegations of this nature are particularly serious, the passage of time muddies numerous aspects of allegations of this nature. Due to the lapse of time it is only natural that memories are not as clear as they once were, which makes people susceptible to their own mind “joining the dots” where their memory escapes them or is not as strong at particular points. This can lead to a very dangerous situation for the justice system where people can actually genuinely believe false memories.
Another problem often encountered in these sorts of historical matters are that those accused often do not have any recollection of the times, events or places spoken of by complainants. This is particularly true if the accusations are in-fact completely untrue, as the events surrounding the false allegations would simply be unremarkable to any accused.
In cases such as these, juries are warned about the passage of time between the alleged acts and the complaint, however, it does beg the question of ‘how long is too long?’ and how much prejudicial impact does it have on a jury’s determination when considering the accused may not remember the times/dates specified?
Why has it taken so long for these complaints to be made? The motivation behind a “late complaint” is another aspect of these matters that make it extremely difficult for both an accused and also the person making the complaint. An accused will generally question the motivation behind the complaint and question why, if these events actually occurred, were they not raised a long time ago? There may be genuine and valid reasons for the time between an alleged act and a complaint but there will always be a question mark, fairly or otherwise, placed on these historical complaints.
Offences such as these cannot be tolerated by the community and certainly shouldn’t be ignored by the justice system. However, when the courts are confronted with allegations of acts that allegedly occurred up to 40-50 years ago, how can justice possibly be done? Juries are naturally mindful of the seriousness of these allegations however also lack real insight into the difficulty of defending yourself against these sorts of dated complaints.
There is no simple answer to the question of “how long is too long” and placing time limitations on complaints raises almost as many issues as is solves. However, when faced with historical complaints, police and prosecuting authorities should exercise extreme caution and consider public interest as well as fairness to an accused before deciding to proceed with prosecution.
The role of the prosecutor is not to achieve convictions; it is to ensure matters are prosecuted with fairness (for all parties) and impartiality. It is this that needs to be at the forefront of their minds when confronted with these types of matters.