Sunday, February 6, 2011


It's not too late

A high-profile defended UK libel trial is a winner-takes-all game. Ideally success requires a number of things. First, a long purse. Without it nothing can be done. The English civil justice system uses a high proportion of the best legal brains in the world, and they rightly earn a great deal of money. The meticulous research effort required to put a case together that will stand up to the ferocious ability of these lawyers to shred and dismantle weakly based claims – and UK civil lawyers leave prosecutors standing in their courtroom skills - means the preparation of the case has to call on more of the finest brains available, this time as researchers and experts in the appropriate field.

A network of specialist assistants and private investigators, on hourly and daily charges, working for the lawyers, has to perform the mundane but, again, expensive, task of simply locating these people, from anywhere in the world, to assist in the case. Everything has to be paid for: paper, paperclips, copying, transcript services, phone calls – the bill for those alone, before a single professional fee is paid, will run into thousands.

It is pointless embarking on such a venture, therefore, without at least a million pounds available to finance it, either by owning it, earning it, or setting up a powerful fund to raise that kind of money. The latter, in turn, requires a large number of people emotionally committed to a simple-to-understand cause and an expert group, including volunteers, able to mobilise them. There is no evidence that Goncalo Amaral has either.

Some of the books written by participants in the Irving v Lipschitz libel case are models of how a well-planned, but above all professional, defence can be financed and led. It is difficult to see many parallels with the inspector’s case. Financially Goncalo Amaral is weakened and the (literally) world-wide constituency of potential supporters has clearly not rallied, or been encouraged, to his side with large-scale contributions; there has, indeed, been little evidence of international campaigning with the object of raising serious amounts. Nor, very surprisingly, is there any evidence of rich individuals in Portugal rallying to his cause with their own funds. The McCanns have had both a fund and a bank of public sympathy to call upon, neither of them yet drained, as well as wealthy individuals willing to spend in their support.

And that is before we turn to the merits of the case. My own belief, is that there is evidence, much of summarised in previous Bureau entries of conduct by the parents that amounts to a “pattern of behaviour”, one consistent with a desire for the Portuguese investigation into their child’s death to “fail”.

There could be many reasons why the parents felt and acted in such a claimed way, loss of confidence in the abilities of the Portuguese police, lack of belief in their objectivity and the fear that they might be unjustly accused obviously among them. But there is certainly a less charitable case that can be made and then it would be for the court to decide on those factors merits of the evidence. Inspector Amaral himself would have a status within this framework as something more than the author of an accusatory book: if, as Carlos Anjos alleged, there was actual obstruction of the investigation, then the inspector himself was possibly a victim of such obstruction, both via the media briefings against him and in the circumstances preceding his resignation.

But that's just my view and there is no guarantee of victory. There may be another strategy, a different attack or defence; whatever it might be, though, there has to be a foundation slab of factual evidence underlying it to offer the slightest chance of success. And, given the profile of the McCann affair, it needs a top lawyer to build it.

I have seen no evidence of such a case being marshalled in the classic sense – assistants and volunteers organizing research work, appeals for information in Portugal, private investigators or, again, volunteers, making the rounds of those participants who have retired and are free to speak, or any other manifestations of a determined and focused case-building exercise.

Instead we have, as we know from the pronouncements of the inspector and his supporters, a number of scattergun assertions and suspicions about the possible guilt of the McCanns and their circle – the Gaspar stuff, the belief that “The British Empire” is against Portugal, the fraudulent fund claims, the belief that that benighted amateur Gordon Brown had protected the gang – the list goes on. Some of Goncalo Amaral’s widespread and diffuse suspicions might have an element of truth behind them, but as libel courtroom evidence they would not even fail: any decent English lawyer would tell the inspector – “we simply can’t go into court with this stuff, the judge will just throw it in the bin: it’s worthless.”

It is English lawyers, their fangs sharpened by the adversarial English system to a degree that I don’t believe Iberian lawyers can conceive who jumped on the assertion that the child was dead, together with the implication that the parents knew it. Given that assertion, combined with the exceptionally unwise and incorrect statement in the Truth of the Lie documentary that the McCanns’ version of the abduction was “impossible” they simply rubbed their hands and waited for the money to roll in. They knew immediately that the McCann legal teams in both countries didn’t even have to make a case: they only had to invite Amaral to provide any evidence for a completely libellous claim. And of course there isn’t any; opinions yes, evidence no.

I believe that Inspector Amaral is a brave man whose career may have been wrecked through the possible failure of the Tapas Nine to help wholeheartedly with the investigation into the death of Madeleine McCann, a failure which as we know from the performance of Jane Tanner in front of the Leicester police, reached as far as the UK as well. And I believe he deserves justice.

His professional advisors are something else. No lawyer should ever have let him make the above statements: he either failed to use one or he was dreadfully, appallingly, advised. His current lawyer, or lawyers, are, as the injunction hearings showed, totally out of their depth. Not only were they unaware of the rogatory letter rigmarole which had to precede any appearance by officer De Freitas, thus leaving both that officer and Amaral to be humiliated by Scotland Yard and the Home Office, but the case they presented was a disgrace, warmed leftovers from 2007 and an apparent inability to respond to real-time events in the courtroom.

The prosecutor’s testimony that the couple had not told the truth was a gaping open door – which Amaral’s lawyer failed even to see, let alone to kick aside. It was hard, very hard, to listen to the English press outside the courtroom impatiently and contemptuously asking, “yes, yes, but what’s new?” The McCanns’ lawyer, the umbrella wielding Isabel Duarte, not the most impressive advocate since Cicero, was able to bellow her way to victory without any problems from her opponent.

And then there are the unprofessional advisors, the not very intelligent, not very scrupulous, individuals who have invited themselves into the inspector’s circle, one or two of them in the UK. Until the inspector has a house-cleaning he will remain within a group of people who simply cannot be taken seriously by lawyers, policemen or even, outside Portugal, journalists. By their constant search for shadowy culprits, their lazy posturing on Portuguese television screens and their collective inability to put a case together that can command respect - rather than kid’s comic stuff - as well as their transparent exploitation of Amaral's fame for their own ends, they are enclosing the inspector in a very dangerous bubble of illusion.

It may be that the inspector no longer wishes to go to the UK courts via an edition of the Truth of the Lie. But nothing stands still and the power of the McCanns' professional advisors will still reach as far as the Portuguese courts, so whatever happens something new is surely necessary. Goncalo, there are people who are gaining by their association with you, professionally and otherwise, but if things go tits up it's only you who will pay the price. Wake up before it’s too late: start afresh!
POSTED BY JOHN BLACKSMITH AT 17:55 ... -late.html