Police ‘sorry’ over Higgins football sex abuse case

Police have apologised to six victims of football coach Bob Higgins for the way the case was handled in the 1990s.

Their lawyer is now calling for “double jeopardy” laws to be changed so child sex abusers can be retried if new evidence emerges.

Higgins has been handed 24 years in jail for indecently assaulting 24 boys.

But six other victims were told their allegations could not be tried in court because the claims were part of a 1991 court case against the coach.

One told the BBC he was completely unaware of that first case, and his complaint as part of the latest trial was only dropped after police found his name on paperwork in Higgins’ loft in 2017.

Hampshire Police said it was “genuinely sorry” victims “did not get the justice they deserved”.

‘Devastated’

One ex-Premier League footballer told the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme he was “devastated” to be told his case against the coach could not go ahead.

He said he was abused by Higgins as a young trainee at Southampton FC in the mid-1980s.

In 1989, as a teenager, he went to the police and gave a statement. Five other young players made similar claims around that time.

But he said he was not contacted again.

Then, in 2016, he watched an interview on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme with another of Bob Higgins’ victims, and went to the police for a second time.

He was interviewed for seven hours by specialist officers and told he would be treated as a complainant in a new case against Higgins.

But months later a police search of Higgins’ attic turned up paperwork with the player’s personal details on it.

The ex-footballer learned that, in 1991, his name had been used as part of a court case he had never been made aware of.

Higgins had been acquitted of a single offence against one of five other footballers.

Prosecutors offered no more evidence on the other charges, and the judge ordered a formal not guilty verdict to be entered.

As a result of the principle of double jeopardy, which stops people being tried twice for the same crime, the ex-footballer was told by police he had been dropped as a complainant in the new case.

“For me, I’d never been so low in my life,” he said. “To be let down again by the system was devastating and all I felt was anger.

“I have not and will never get a feeling of closure because [Higgins] has never been found guilty for the crimes he committed against us six players,” he said.

The player could give evidence in the latest trial but only as a bad character witness, rather than as a complainant.

“The abuse after 1991 could have been stopped if the police, the Crown Prosecution Service , Southampton Football Club and the FA had all done their jobs properly,” he said.

Higgins was sentenced on Wednesday to 24 years and three months in jail for abusing young players.

He sexually touched and groped 24 victims, most of them trainees, at Southampton and Peterborough United.

1990s complaints

In 2003, the Labour government relaxed the double jeopardy rule in England and Wales, allowing a retrial in cases where “strong and viable” new evidence emerges.

But the change only applies to 30 serious crimes – including murder, rape, Class A drug offences and war crimes.

Because Higgins was charged with indecent assault of a child, seen as a less serious offence, the rule of double jeopardy still applies in his case.

Hampshire Police said: “This case shows just how important it is that complaints are taken seriously and allegations are thoroughly investigated when they are made.

“Unfortunately, complaints made by some victims in the 1990s weren’t treated in the same way as they would be today,” added Assistant Chief Constable Ben Snuggs.

‘Significant strides’

Dino Novicelli, a lawyer for three of the six victims, has now written to Justice Secretary David Gauke calling for double jeopardy laws to be changed.

“Any child abuse must be considered serious,” he told the BBC.

“Especially in a case like this where years later so many more survivors are coming forward.”

The Crown Prosecution Service said: “The law and practice have changed significantly in dealing with allegations of child sexual abuse since 1992, and we have made significant strides in our approach to these types of cases.

“The law prevents us from trying certain matters again, but we were able to use the evidence of two of the complainants from the original trials to demonstrate Bob Higgins’ propensity to commit these offences – this without doubt helped to secure his recent conviction.”

A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice said: “The double jeopardy rule exists to ensure that once justice is served, an acquitted defendant cannot be unnecessarily subjected to additional prosecutions.”

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