The Brittany Higgins sexual assault case – now aborted – has left in legal limbo the accused, Bruce Lehrmann. This is unacceptable in a country that has the common law doctrine of innocent until proven guilty at the heart of its justice system.
Lehrmann’s current difficulties remind me of another case. Though of very different circumstances, like Lehrmann, the accused in that case was unable to clear his name. Known as The Winslow Boy because of the play and subsequent movie of that name, this was the story of George Archer-Shee v The King.
In 1908, George Archer-Shee, a young cadet aged thirteen at the Royal Naval College at Osborne, was accused of stealing a five-shilling postal note from another boy and cashing it at the post office. The result of this accusation was that Archer-Shee was expelled from Osborne. Unfortunately, the Admiralty would not review the case despite the boy’s assertion that he was innocent. However, the boy’s father refused to accept that young George had committed the crime.
This was a time when one’s name was of the highest of value to a family. Reputations then were of even greater importance than they are today. Today, for example, sports “stars” can be resurrected reputationally with some good PR work, despite a major misdemeanour. Then, doors would have closed permanently and few if any options would arise under the same circumstances. And even under normal circumstances, without the support of a patron willing to vouch for another, one’s prospects were slim.
A celebrated barrister and Member of the Commons took up the case after spending some hours with the lad to ascertain if truly he was telling the truth. But hurdles remained. Here we can identify some similarities with Bruce Lehrmann’s current situation in the ACT DPP’s decision to withdraw the accused’s right to a second trial because of the plaintiff’s reported medical condition, and yet state that the case had merit.
Because Archer-Shee was a naval cadet the civil courts were not an option. Second, the boy was not entitled to a court martial because he was not enlisted. The only recourse was a petition of right against the crown. The legal principle being challenged was the doctrine that the king (and the Admiralty as a result) could do no wrong. Consequently, George Archer-Shee’s reputation wallowed longer in legal limbo than it otherwise should have (as does Lehrmann’s reputation today).
Finally, the government succumbed and George’s case went before the High Court on 26th July, 1910. George was cleared. (Tragically, George was killed at the age of nineteen at the First Battle of Ypres, on the 31st October, 1914).
The Winslow Boy, with screenplay by Terrence Rattigan and with Robert Donat playing the barrister and Sir Cedric Hardwicke in the role of the father in the film version, is wonderful. Though like other cinematic treatments of historic events and characters, it, too, melds art and history, it is still well worth the watch (challenging our prime Cat movie man reviewer, Wolfie, here.) And especially so because it upholds powerfully the right of all those who stand accused the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial.