Robert Colover (not pictured), the barrister instructed by The Crown Prosecuting Service (CPS) to prosecute Neil Wilson for sleeping with a 13-year old girl, was himself criticised by the CPS for referring to the victim as “predatory” and “sexually experienced”.
Taking Colover’s comments, Judge Nigel Peters gave Wilson, who pleaded guilty to two counts of making extreme pornographic images and one count of sexual activity with a child, an eight-month prison sentence suspended for two years.
The CPS said that the language used by its own representative was “inappropriate” and emphasised that the defendant, Wilson, was the one in the wrong. It said that it would not instruct Colover again unless he could satisfactorily explain the use of his words, in response to a petition started by childhood sex abuse survivor and signed by 4,000 people. Children’s charities have criticised the language used by Colover as wrong. The case was brought to the attention of the Attorney General’s office, which will be considering whether to refer it to the Court of Appeal under the unduly lenient sentence scheme.
One would usually expect the defence lawyer, in acting for his or her client, to cast doubt on the character and testimony of a sexual abuse victim. So, it is odd that, in this case, this was done by the prosecution lawyer, whose role is perhaps to achieve some form of justice for the victim. However, in the BBC news story, Carl Gardiner, a former government legal adviser, is right to warn of the danger of commenting without knowing all the facts: “The use of this word ‘predatory’ and the other remarks sounds bad to me, but we don’t know how that word introduced itself into the court.” That is sound advice that will probably go unheeded. The Wilson case is not the first time that the media – and through them, other organisations – have attacked the words uttered during a court hearing, though usually it is just the judge’s sentencing that causes ire. It is more likely that something was lost in translation. According to Niklaas Luhmann, the law and the media are closed systems of communications that each translate information into meaning in different ways. In a sense, they use different languages, so they cannot duplicate the meaning of each other’s communications. Gardiner maybe right that if we actually heard or read a word-for-word report, or at least a report with enough quotations, would understand why Colover spoke the way he did. It just would not be interesting enough for the media.
“Barrister criticised for calling child abuse victim ‘predatory‘”, BBC News, 7 August 2013
”Lawyer who called 13-year old ‘predatory’ is barred from sex offences cases“, Rosa Silverman and Hayley Dixon, The Telegraph, 7 August 2013
“A Story of Miscarriage: Law and the Media” by Richard Nobles and David Schiff, Journal of Law and Society, 31, 2, 221-244, June 2004