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Keir Starmer: The former DPP wrongly believes that a legal obligation to report complaints of child abuse, however absurd, is needed 

Should we trust our doctors, teachers and priests? Keir Starmer QC, who recently stepped down as Director of Public Prosecutions, believes we should not. Instead we should place our trust in the criminal law and the lawyers of the Crown Prosecution Service. That is the conclusion one is driven to after he told BBC Panorama in November that it should be mandatory to notify the authorities of a reasonable belief that a child has been sexually abused.

A prosecutor is often tempted to regard prosecution as the answer to our social problems. And in the wake of the Jimmy Savile and clergy scandals Mr Starmer's proposal has attracted considerable support, not least from the higher reaches of both the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches, despite the obvious danger that such a law would criminalise any priest preserving the seal of the confessional.

Notwithstanding the support of clerics, reeling after the exposure of the libidinous criminality of their former colleagues, the implementation of Mr Starmer's idea would do little to help vulnerable children. It might actually both deter abused children from seeking help and divert police attention to the investigation and consequent publicising of baseless rumours.

Outside of areas like health and safety, offences of omission are now unusual in English law, and of failing to report suspicion that somebody has committed a crime even more so. If you believe that your neighbour is fraudulently claiming benefit, that your builder is not paying his income tax or that your son has committed a theft, or even a murder, you are under no legal obligation to inform the authorities.

The law was different until 1967 when, as one of Roy Jenkins's lesser-known legal reforms, the delightfully Tudor-sounding offence of "misprision of felony" was finally abolished in England and Wales. It survived in Northern Ireland under the guise of "failing to report an arrestable offence", although the threat of ten years in jail did not persuade the Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams to report either his knowledge of mass murder committed by his followers, or his suspicions that his niece was being raped by his brother Liam. (In fairness to Mr Adams he did tell social services that the niece in question might have nits.) Nor did the continuing existence of misprision in the law of the Irish Republic up to 1998 do much to encourage bishops and cardinals to report abuse within the Catholic Church.

In England new duties to report have been created in recent years. Banks and others handling large sums of money in suspicious circumstances have to alert the authorities, and there is now a general duty to report terrorist activity. Nevertheless, in general, unless you believe your neighbour is planning a terrorist offence, you commit no offence by staying mum. You may sometimes have a moral obligation to report illegal activity. But life would become intolerable for everyone except nosey-parkers, busy-bodies and sneaks if that flexible moral obligation were to be replaced by an inflexible legal obligation to report every crime.
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