Former Law Society president Fiona Woolf today came under renewed pressure to stand down as chair of the inquiry into historical child sex abuse, as a solicitor-advocate began a legal challenge to her appointment.
Family lawyer David Burrows launched a judicial review application on behalf of an abuse victim, questioning’s Woolf’s independence and expertise in family law.
‘We query the bias of the panel and in particular that of Mrs Woolf, and whether or not the child sexual abuse survivors should have been consulted,’ Burrows told the Gazette. Burrows wants the official inquiry to be chaired by a High Court judge.
The inquiry was announced by home secretary Theresa May in July this year following allegations that a dossier about alleged paedophiles at Westminster was destroyed after it was handed to then home secretary Leon Brittan in the 1980s.
Woolf, currently Lord Mayor of London, was brought in after Lady Butler-Sloss stepped down from her role as chair when it was revealed that her late brother was attorney general at the time of some of the allegations. Lord Brittan has insisted proper procedures were followed.
Yesterday questions were raised over Woolf’s suitability as it emerged she had social links to Brittan and lived in the same street. Woolf told the Home Affairs Select Committee she had disclosed her relationship with Brittan and his wife, which included five dinner parties.
Woolf (pictured) told MPs that the peer was ‘one of thousands of people’ she knew and was not a ‘close associate’.
Woolf insisted she did not regard herself as a member of the establishment. ‘I can understand that there will be people who do not know what the Lord Mayor of London does,’ she said. ‘But as an ordinary solicitor in private practice I really do not think I count as a member of the establishment.’
Alison Millar of law firm Leigh Day, who is acting for a number of alleged survivors of child abuse, joined calls for Woolf to step down.
She said: ‘Fiona Woolf’s links to those whose behaviour should come under close scrutiny by this inquiry, alongside her labelling of the “victim community” in front of [the] home affairs committee, show her inappropriateness for the role. We believe she is not equipped for the role and yet again we call on the government to appoint an appropriate person to head this inquiry who has experience and the trust of survivors.’
However, Sharon Evans, one of the inquiry’s panel of experts, told the BBC’s Today programme she backed Woolf. ‘The whole panel are aware that we have got off to a very difficult start, but… we are satisfied that Fiona Woolf has the skills of a solicitor,’ she said.
Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude also backed Woolf, saying: ‘This is really important and really matters. It has to be done right. Fiona Woolf seems to be a really admirable person in many ways… she’s not doing this on her own.
‘She’s tried to be completely meticulous about disclosing all these matters. I hope we can deal with things in a grown-up way.’