Man barred from schools after touching pupil’s chin to appeal to the Queen
More than 100 MPs, peers and members of the Northern Ireland Assembly have backed the first ever school teacher in the UK campaigning for a pardon from the Queen.
Retired Belfast teacher David Bell says the royal pardon will wipe away the “stain” of the sentence of “absolute discharge” that he received after an incident involving a female pupil. In the UK’s magistrates’ bench book “absolute discharge” is defined as morally innocent but technically guilty.
The former technology and design teacher’s ordeal began in June 2002 at Laurel Hill Community College in Lisburn City. He was accused of assault but he claimed that he had simply told a pupil to cheer up and touched her briefly on the chin.
Bell, 53, said he has been encouraged by the volume of support from both the Assembly and Westminster. Parties ranging from Sinn Féin to the Democratic Unionists and the Tories have backed his demand for a Queen’s pardon.
He insisted this weekend that he was not guilty of any assault on a pupil or of behaving inappropriately.
“I was called into the principal’s office and it was put to me that there had been some incident involving a first-form pupil. At the time I didn’t know what was being talked about, but soon it became clear that it was about a girl that I had taught. I had been accused of indecently assaulting this girl and the only recollection of any contact I had with this pupil was that I touched her under the chin as I told her to cheer up, and that was the height of it. Then it all got blown out of proportion and the police were called in. I was suspended and two and a half years later I ended up in court.
“My account of what happened was actually accepted. However, the contact I had made with the child was held to be a technical assault and for that I was given an ‘absolute discharge’, which sounds like you have walked out the door, but in fact it is a sentence, the lowest possible sentence available to a judge. There is no penalty associated with it, but it indicates that the letter of the law was broken.”
Bell tried to have the verdict overturned by the Criminal Case Review Commission and the Court of Appeal in Belfast. He claimed that because there were no “technical grounds” for appeal, both forums were unable to challenge the outcome. Bell, who can no longer teach because the “absolute discharge” record remains, said he had no other choice but to seek a royal pardon.
“I do regard this as a stain on my character and have exhausted all the legal routes. The only option left for me is appealing directly to the Queen. It is a royal pardon that is exercised through the civil power. In the Northern Ireland context this lies with the secretary of state, Shaun Woodward – he has the power to recommend that the royal pardon is granted.
“The pardon doesn’t turn back time or change the record, but it acknowledges that it’s something that should never have happened.”
Bell said he was taking his case to the Queen to make a wider point about how innocent teachers can find themselves facing accusations of abuse and assault.
“There is a general principle here to raise where, for instance, a sports teacher patting a pupil on the shoulder for scoring a goal for his or her school could be accused of a technical assault.
“I need to go down this road because I think what happened to me was wrong. I was forced to make a choice between fighting a case of alleged indecent assault – and risk losing everything, including my liberty – or else accept that it was a technical assault.”
A spokeswoman said Shaun Woodward could not comment on individual cases. But it is understood that Woodward has received dozens of letters from parliamentarians, including both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats’ Northern Ireland spokesmen, urging him to recommend a royal pardon. Bell said he was very pleased that he had gained cross-party support in the Stormont Assembly as well as Westminster.
“The last time a royal pardon was exercised in Northern Ireland was for the first world war soldiers who were executed for cowardice. The ‘Shot at Dawn’ campaign argued that the soldiers were not cowards but suffering from post-traumatic battle shock. They were granted their pardon posthumously. I just hope that unlike them I will live to see my name being cleared in this way.”
Acknowledgement: Observer and Guardian 8th March