The Depressing Truth about Historical Sexual Abuse and Miscarriages of Justice

Miss Naomi-ellen Speechley1

1University Of Manchester, Manchester, UK

There has been an unprecedented rise in awareness of institutional failures to prosecute historical sexual abuse (HSA). This has prompted national inquiries both in the UK and Australia, reactionary criminal procedure changes and an increasing drive for convictions to ensure justice is done. However, the risk of wrongful convictions is high.

The passage of time and sexual nature of the offence means that exculpatory evidence is near-impossible to find. Cases are frequently one person’s word against another – and because of the ‘no smoke without fire’ mentality and the reviled nature of the offence, juries may err on the side of caution and convict.

Literature suggests that bureaucratic Criminal Cases Review Commissions (CCRCs) – as part of the system – cannot adequately identify miscarriages of justice in these rapidly increasing cases. Independent campaign projects going out on a limb to establish innocence are far better-placed to expose wrongful convictions.

However – I reviewed every HSA conviction referred back to the courts, finding that the suggestions of police trawling and compensation-motivated false claims did not reflect reality. Just 4% of convictions quashed indicated innocence. The CCRC and Innocence Projects are not exposing miscarriages. Most convictions were intra-family HSA, overturned on technicalities. This has ominous implications for criminal justice.

The problem of HSA will not disappear soon. Lessons from the UK on the true picture of these cases – and how they are handled post-conviction – could be vital for Australia and New Zealand when contemplating the development of a CCRC.


Naomi-Ellen is a Research Council-funded PhD candidate. Combining law and criminology, her thesis analyses how alleged wrongful convictions in historical sexual abuse cases, are investigated by the Criminal Cases Review Commission, Innocence Projects and campaigners. She is currently a visiting scholar in New Zealand, studying the formation of a Criminal Cases Review Commission there. Prior to this she lectured in forensic and criminological psychology, and worked as lead researcher at the University of Oxford on a project leading to the report, ‘The Impact of Being Wrongly Accused of Abuse in Occupations of Trust’.  She has also co-managed an Innocence Project.

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