Sarah Regan and Rupert Russell secure acquittal for nursery owner

Lesley Bates was the owner of two Bristol nurseries and following a single allegation made to Ofsted in 2016 in respect of a 3-year-old child, she was ultimately indicted with 39 allegations of child cruelty dating back to 1979. Her daughter who managed one of the nurseries faced three allegations and a further defendant, an employee, faced a single allegation.

The allegations in respect of Lesley Bates, in the main involved what was termed by the prosecution, force feeding; when a child refused to eat either putting a spoonful of food into their mouth while they were crying or squeezing the cheeks together to open the mouth allowing a spoonful of food to be inserted. There were also other allegations of dragging children roughly by the arm when moving them to different parts of the nursery and one of yanking a child by the hair.

Following the initial allegation in 2016, the police issued a police press release asking other potential witnesses to come forward, which resulted in the many historical allegations. In addition, as well as the witnesses to specific allegations, the prosecution sought to adduce evidence in respect of 14 further witnesses as bad character going to what they termed the culture of the nurseries.

There was no evidence from any of the victims of the alleged abuse; the children were young at the time, the distress, if any, was short lived and not a single child had complained. In fact, because of the age of many of the allegations and the memories of the witnesses recalling them, many of the counts alleged behaviour against unnamed children.

The first task was to reduce the number of counts to be put before the jury and following an application for the prosecution to reconsider their case in light of the decision in R v N, D & L (2010) EWCA Crim 941, they split the indictment in two making an A and a B indictment.

The ‘A’ indictment was tried in an eventful six-week trial which concluded with the jury acquitting Lesley Bates unanimously of 16-counts. They were hung in respect of 10 further counts and acquitted the other two defendants.

During the trial it became clear that two of the witnesses had been motivated by personal reasons to make false allegations against all three defendants. Other witnesses were challenged in respect their accounts of how they came to leave the nursery and the fact that other than the complaint in 2016, there were few contemporaneous complaints and none from those employed at the nurseries.

The trial was also beset by issues of non- or late disclosure, including evidence in relation to an ex-police officer who had been responsible for taking 29 witness statements. Following disclosure provided just before the prosecution closed its case, we were able to demonstrate that he had coerced some of the witnesses to make statements by threatening that they would not pass future DBS checks if they refused. He was also challenged on his failure to keep first drafts or amendments of all but one of the statements which, given the historical nature of many of the allegations and a trial five years after many of the accounts were provided, was a crucial factor in our being able to successfully raise a doubt in respect of those accounts.

The prosecution decided not to seek a retrial in respect of the outstanding counts and applied to stay the ‘B’ indictment ending five years of stress and worry for our client who by the time the trial started was 76 years of age.

Sarah ReganRupert Russell