'Witchfinder General' backs charges

Bicester Advertiser: Nazir Afzal with Detective Chief Superintendent Mary Doyle outside Manchester Crown Court after a successful prosecution Nazir Afzal with Detective Chief Superintendent Mary Doyle outside Manchester Crown Court after a successful prosecution

The lawyer dubbed the "Witchfinder General" made a robust defence of the courts today in the wake of a series of high-profile acquittals in celebrity sex trials.

Nazir Afzal, chief Crown prosecutor for the North West, who put Coronation Street's William Roache in the dock, said the authorities would prosecute if the evidence was there, irrespective of who the defendant is in cases of historic sex abuse.

"This is not some witch hunt. Criminal justice is not a ducking-stool, it is due process. It is a collection of evidence, scrutiny of evidence, presentation of evidence, the testing of that evidence and determination by a jury," he said.

Mr Afzal said in each case, no matter who the complainant or accused is, the same test applies in deciding whether a case goes to court: "Is there sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction and is it in the public interest to do so? The threshold has not changed.

"Time is not barrier to justice being delivered. It is for Parliament to determine there should be a limitation on cases being brought to court. Parliament has decided there is no limitation on these types of cases and that must be right.

"Our test is the realistic prospect of conviction, it's not the same as 'This man is guilty' - that is a judgment only a jury can make.

"Nobody is above the law in this country. We apply the code, the law, the same to everybody."

Mr Afzal said that as a chief prosecutor he is "damned if I do and damned if I don't" in deciding whether a case goes to court.

And he said conviction rates are higher than ever before, despite some high-profile acquittals.

"We can all think of countries with 100% conviction rates. Would you want to live in one of those countries?" he asked.

Mr Afzal, speaking at a conference on sexual abuse in Manchester, said it was important to prosecute cases of historic abuse regardless of the passage of time for the sake of the victims.

"Time is not a healer," he said. "Justice delayed, evidently, is better than justice denied.

"The reality is we get it right most of the time."

Mr Afzal said that for generations children, very often the victims of sexual abuse, had been told they should be seen and not heard and it takes "enormous courage" to eventually come forward.

"It's our fault that they did not come forward 30 years ago, it's the fault of the perpetrators, the institutions or wherever the abuse took place, it's our fault, not theirs.

"We have, as organisations, as individuals, as neighbours, turned a blind eye to abuse, we have spent years and years and years thinking it is not happening in our streets, our schools, our homes, our institutions, or online. We seem to have assumed it's someone else's problem. I take issue with that, it is my problem and it is your problem."

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