Child abuse inquiry acted ‘appropriately and proportionately’ when its lead lawyer was accused of sexual assault

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By Katie King on

Ben Emmerson QC denies the allegations

The child sex abuse inquiry has been cleared of failing to investigate a sexual assault allegedly committed by its lead lawyer — Matrix Chambers’ Ben Emmerson QC.

The top barrister was, until September last year, the head lawyer at the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA). Then he was suspended, reportedly because the inquiry had “become very concerned about aspects of [his] leadership of the counsel team”. He then resigned.

Less than a month later, the human rights specialist was accused of sexually assaulting an inquiry worker in the lift of Millbank Tower (the inquiry’s HQ). BBC Newsnight said it:

[H]as learned the inquiry was also aware that an inquiry worker had alleged Mr Emmerson had sexually assaulted her in a lift at the inquiry’s offices in Millbank in central London in early September. The woman had given an account of the incident on the same day, but did not want the incident to be investigated.

At the time, a lawyer for Emmerson told the BBC:

Mr Emmerson categorically denies any allegation of sexual assault, or bullying or other misconduct at the inquiry.

Since then, Matrix Chambers has concluded “without hesitation” that Emmerson did not commit any sex assault. However, the IICSA was faced with accusations it had responded “inadequately” to the sex assault claims. The Home Affairs Committee, headed by Yvette Cooper MP, summarised its position as follows:

[O]n the basis of the evidence we have seen, we do not believe that IICSA has taken seriously enough its responsibility to pursue allegations of bullying or disclosures of sexual assault within the inquiry.

Enter Old Square Chambers’ Mark Sutton QC, who was tasked with considering “the events surrounding Mr Emmerson’s resignation from the inquiry and to advise on the appropriateness, in the given circumstances, of the inquiry’s response.” He was not asked “to inquire into or comment upon the veracity of any allegations made against Mr Emmerson”.

But, perhaps inevitably, the sex assault claims were mentioned in the review. Published yesterday, it says:

On September 2016, a member of the inquiry team [Ms A] reported a serious episode concerning the conduct of Mr Emmerson. In the same discussion, she identified factors which, on any objective view, significantly qualified the way in which the alleged episode should be responded to. From the outset, Ms A made it clear that she did not want the issue to be investigated nor reported to any external agency, and she identified compelling reasons why the inquiry should respect her wishes in this regard.

So, did the IICSA deal with the allegation inadequately? Sutton concludes: “the inquiry responded in a way which, judged in the round, was in my view both appropriate and proportionate.”

He explains why:

[T]he IICSA was confronted, in September 2016, with a set of circumstances with complicating features of which there was no mention in the media coverage… These events arose at a time when the IICSA was recovering its footing following the unsatisfactory leadership of its former Chair. But they were not a product of those deficiencies or the inquiry’s workplace culture. Neither were they, in my view, symptomatic of difficulties in the inquiry’s working environment more generally.

Read the review in full here:

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