Victims will feel angry at the latest resignation from the child abuse inquiry – the next move is crucial.
The resignation of Dame Lowell Goddard as chair of the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse is hugely frustrating and dispiriting for survivors.
All day I have been fielding calls from clients worried that this hard-won opportunity to investigate and expose the reality of institutional abuse - and to learn how to prevent it in future - will be derailed.
My clients and many others have waited so long to have their voices heard. They have invested great hope in this inquiry. For the sake of survivors, and for society as a whole, it is essential that the work of the inquiry continues.
What needs to happen now? To ensure momentum is not lost, the home secretary urgently needs to appoint an interim chair. This can be a current panel member. Alexis Jay, who led the inquiry into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham, is an obvious candidate. An interim chair can ensure that the work of the inquiry continues pending a permanent appointment.
What qualities are needed in the new chair? Four come to mind. Firstly, a professional knowledge and understanding of the issues involved in child abuse and child protection. Without that background, in my view a new chair would face an impossibly steep learning curve.
Secondly, experience in public inquiries. This inquiry is the largest, most ambitious and most sensitive undertaken in the UK. We have already seen how inquiries can rapidly become unmanageable. The Bloody Sunday Inquiry – an investigation of events on a single day in 1972 – lasted 16 years.
A new chair needs to know the bear traps and how to avoid them.
Thirdly, strong leadership skills. This inquiry has a vast remit; some would say too vast. But we know from the experience of the McClellan Royal Commission in Australia that a national inquiry into institutional child abuse can succeed, provided it has the benefit of strong and determined leadership. This will be critical.
Finally, the new inquiry chair needs to be an effective ambassador; someone who can communicate the purpose and workings of the inquiry both to survivors and to the wider public, in a compelling fashion.
Dame Lowell Goddard never quite managed this; perhaps her overseas absences made this harder. The inquiry chair needs to present a compelling narrative to the public about what the inquiry hopes to achieve, how it proposes to go about its task, and timescales. He or she needs to win the public’s trust.
Clearly, it will not easy to find a permanent chair with all of these personal qualities. The home secretary must do her best. Although Goddard’s absences abroad were a distraction, I wouldn’t rule out looking overseas provided the candidate is unequivocally committed to seeing the inquiry through to its conclusion.
Does the new chair need to be a lawyer? A legal background is not strictly necessary; previous public inquiries have been chaired by non-lawyers.
But this is a statutory inquiry, and the chair effectively has judicial powers. So one would normally expect a lawyer for this role. The scale of the inquiry, the sensitivity of the legal issues involved – and the resistance that will inevitably be encountered from some of the institutions and individuals under scrutiny – inclines me to think that a lawyer would probably be necessary.
Whoever the new chair is, it is essential that the inquiry remains on track. Survivors have waited too long for this opportunity, and it cannot be snatched away now.
Richard Scorer, specialist abuse lawyer at Slater and Gordon, represents more than 50 victims giving evidence to the inquiry