by Jon Robins
“You are free to go. I am very sorry.” It was with these words that Lord Justice Leveson in the Court of Appeal quashed the conviction of David Bryant, a former fireman of seemingly impeccable character, for abusing a boy four decades earlier in a case that was based upon the uncorroborated word of a man revealed to be “a chronic liar”.
It can come as a shock that our justice system can allow such shocking injustices to be perpetrated on the flimsiest of cases. That was the view of “Jim” who posted this comment under a report of this shocking case on one legal blog: “What I think is being said is that our criminal courts will accept a case where it is simply a claim, an allegation, with no supporting evidence whatsoever?”
The prevalence of child sex abuse was too often ignored in the past, deliberately or otherwise. “The attitude of prosecutors, police and society as a whole had to change,” wrote Alison Saunders for The Justice Gap earlier in the year. The Director of Public Prosecutions was, of course, writing about the need for change after the extent of the abuse of Jimmy Savile was revealed following the November 2012 broadcasting of the ITV Exposure documentary.
The Bryant case demonstrates that the most lurid, uncorroborated claims can be accepted unquestioningly by police, prosecution and courts. This is not a new phenomenon. I have written recently for Criminal Law & Justice Weekly about the investigations into the abuse of children in care and residential schools in North Wales and Northern England in the late 1990s. That led to a House of Commons Select Committee on Home Affairs to conclude in 2002 that “a new genre of miscarriages of justice” had resulted from “the over-enthusiastic pursuit” of allegations.
The investigative journalist David Jessel, a former commissioner at the Criminal Cases Review Commission, said back in 2012 that historic sex abuses cases were “by far the largest category” of applications to the watchdog and represented “the largest cohort of potential miscarriages of justice, and which don’t often feature in the catalogue of innocence campaigners”. Few lawyers are prepared to take on difficult appeal work in these straightened times and barely any are willing to assist this subset of cases that are almost impossible to overturn.
Danny Day went to police in 2012 apparently as a result of the furore over the Savile scandal. He spoke graphically about the alleged rape in court that he claimed to have been subjected to by Bryant and a colleague as a 14-year-old at Christchurch fire station on a single occasion at some point between 1976 and 1978. Mr Day claimed to have been “held down over a table by the pair, who then took it in turns to rape him while having sex with each other”.
The court received more than 30 letters from friends, family and former colleagues of the ex fireman speaking to his good character. His reputation was traduced. “I don’t think justice has yet been fully served in this case,” Mr Day told the Bournemouth Daily Echo when Mr Bryant was sentenced to six years. “It is as though because he has led an unblemished life since then that somehow makes up for it. But I do still want to encourage anybody who has experience this sort of thing to come forward. It can’t be left alone.”
An application for an appeal by Bryant was dismissed by a single judge. Mr Day was again on hand to tell the Echo that his abuser “didn’t even get past the first hurdle”. “The first judge looked at it and dismissed it,” he said. “I don’t know how he got that far to be honest, he’s in the place he should be in.” As a result of an appeal by Day, the sentence was increased from six to eight and a half years.
But Danny Day was undone by his own greed. He pursued civil proceedings against Bryant and Dorset County Council responsible for running the fire service. Amongst other claims, he said he was a boxing champion (whose talents surpassed Muhammad Ali) but who had to forsake his rightful place on the British boxing team at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 because of the trauma of the assault.
The barrister Matthew Scott recounts that sorry story on his blog (where Jim posted his comment). “Unlike his allegation of rape, where it was just his word against Mr Bryant’s, his claim of having been an Olympic standard boxer was demonstrably untrue,” Mr Scott wrote. “There was no evidence that he had ever so much as stepped a foot in a boxing ring.”
Mr Day then flagged up his psychiatrist reports to demonstrate what he had endured and this led to his medical records being unearthed – “inexplicably perhaps overlooked or ignored by the police in the original investigation,” Scott notes. They revealed that he had sought help from his doctor “in relation to what can only be described as his being a chronic liar” over a 10 year period.
Mr Scott notes that the Bryant case bears “an uncanny resemblance” to that of Geoff Long, falsely accused and then convicted of sexually abusing his own daughter. I wrote about that disturbing case for the Mail on Sunday and The Justice Gap.
Mr Long, a 67-year-old building and decorating contractor, was convicted of five sexual assaults in October 2010. He spent 20 months in prison as a result of allegations made by his own daughter.
Those allegations began many years after his 20-year marriage to his first wife came to an acrimonious end. There had been a major family rift between Mr Long and his first wife and the three children of that marriage. The allegations began in 2009 when Mr Long and his new wife, Louise refused to take the child of Geoff’s eldest into a new nursery that she had set up.
His daughter from that first marriage went to Brighton police’s historic sexual abuse inquiry team to say that 30 years earlier she had been abused by her father. Louise had to close the nursery immediately and her six-year old child-minding business folded soon after her husband’s arrest.
“As a society we accept that there are miscarriages of justice and that there has to be collateral damage,” Geoff Long told me last year. “For every eight people who get sent to prison in relation to these types of allegations, two are innocent. They’re the collateral damage.”
Louise – like David Bryant’s wife, Lynn – wasn’t prepared to be written off in that way. Despite having no income and a husband in prison, the couple was deemed not eligible for legal aid because of the equity in their property. Louise Long approached one of the tiny number of solicitor prepared to help in these cases, Mark Newby of QualitySolicitors Jordan. He sent over a pamphlet explaining how to research your own appeal. Newby and the barrister Mark Barlow, from Garden Court North chambers, went on to represent Long at the Court of Appeal on a pro bono basis. Lynn Bryant managed to persuade Rupert Butler, Peter Knox QCandRachael Earle of 3 Hare Court to work on their case for free.
Under a Freedom of Information Act request – and at a cost of £800 – Louise Long got hold of 3,600 pages of undisclosed evidence, including copies of the investigating officer’s notebooks.
The undisclosed material revealed critical evidence that undermined the prosecution case. For example, it was proved that there was no sink in the room where the attacks were claimed to have been made. The bingo hall where Long’s first wife claimed that she was at when he was supposedly abusing their daughter had closed decades before the alleged assaults. Louise found her husband’s ex-girlfriend of the time who confirmed she was with him every Saturday night.
It was not until David and Lynn Bryant went to the first magistrates” hearing that the couple understood the full horror of the allegations. But they reckon that the details also immediately demonstrated that the claims were fabricated. “He said there was a pool table, there was no pool table until 1992,” Lynn Bryant told said on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire show. “He said that he was led out through the fire exit door, there was no fire exit door. If the police had done 20 minutes” investigation they could have found out that he was lying.” She reckons to have spent a total of 40 minutes collating sufficient evidence to persuade her pro bono legal team to take on the case.
Geoffrey Long walked out of the Court of Appeal a free man in June 2012. His nightmare continued. His conviction was quashed and a fresh trial ordered. Last year that second trial at Lewes Crown Court collapsed after the daughter’s evidence proved unreliable almost immediately under cross-examination. This was the second attempt at a retrial – the first collapsed in February 2014, after it was revealed that the main prosecution witnesses had been recording the trial in a failed attempt to improve their own evidence.
In 2012, Geoffrey Long’s eldest son went to the police to say that his sister had admitted lying to him when she was drunk. The police not only refused to believe the son but prosecuted him for attempting to pervert the course of justice.
At that point was “blindingly obvious” that the allegations made against him were false, Mark Newby told me. “That the Crown stuck doggedly to a case – there was not one but two attempts at a retrial – is not only a scandalous waste of money but, even more alarming, reveals a credulous approach to self-evidently flawed evidence. It always was a nothing case. What was the prosecution thinking?”
Jon Robins, journalist & editor of The Justice Gap
This article was originally published on Criminal Law & Justice Weekly