Janet Leach is an English social worker, known for the role she played as appropriate adult in the questioning of Fred West, one of the two perpetrators of the Gloucester serial murders, for which he and his wife Rosemary West (against whom Leach testified at trial) became notorious. The murders, first committed by Fred before he met Rosemary, and then by the two of them as co-conspirators, included the kidnapping, rape, torture, and murder of various young women, including their own children and stepchildren. Fred committed suicide in his cell while on remand on New Year's Day, 1995; Rosemary was convicted and became one of three women in Britain to be handed a whole life tariff (the others being Myra Hindley and, in 2014, Joanne Dennehy).
An Appropriate Adult is a parent, guardian, or social worker who, when a child under 18 or vulnerable adult is called in for questioning by police, helps them understand the legal process. Leach was a thirty-eight-year-old mother of five, divorced from her first husband and training to be a social worker, when in 1994 she was asked to serve in this capacity for Fred West, due to his illiteracy and the severity of the charges levelled against him.
An unpaid volunteer, Leach knew nothing about West beyond his age and illiteracy, and didn't know what he was accused of before sitting in on the interrogation. When they first met he denied killing his daughter, Heather, to detectives but later confessed to Leach, who, due to a confidentiality agreement, couldn't share the information with anyone, including police. Before West's suicide Leach spent more than 400 hours in his company, and hearing the details of his crimes created a mental strain.
Eventually, she refused to stay in the role of his appropriate adult unless he confessed to police, which he did. West had developed an attachment to Leach, describing her as his "only friend" and refusing to speak to detectives unless she was present. Leach recalled that speculation about their supposed bond was rife; due to a physical resemblance to Anne McFall, a lover of West's whom he probably murdered (before he met Rosemary), untrue rumours spread that she was related to him, or possibly one of his girlfriends.
The nature of Leach's connection with Fred West has been controversial. She stayed in contact with him even after questioning ended and there was nothing for her to do in her capacity as appropriate adult. Her son, Paul, claimed that she "fell under West's spell" and became greatly distressed when she learned that he had killed himself. Janet, however, denied this, saying that her grief was because there were still bodies to be found, and West had died before giving her all the details. She said that she kept talking to Fred to find out what had happened to his victims:
"I was desperate. I couldn’t sleep at night. I kept having nightmares about all those poor girls in the cellar. But I felt I had to keep talking to Fred. Otherwise, how would their families ever know what had happened to them?"
The stress she was under contributed to a dramatic moment in the trial of the Wests when, unexpectedly called to testify against Rosemary, Leach had a stroke in the witness box after falsely claiming that she hadn't signed a deal with the press to sell her story. She had, in fact, sold her story to the Daily Mirror, and admitted this on returning to the witness box several days later, following treatment at a hospital.
In 1997, Leach lodged a plaint with the Court of Appeal, seeking the right to sue police for compensation on the grounds that she suffered posttraumatic stress disorder as a result of her work as an appropriate adult for Fred West. Unlike the officers and defence solicitor involved in the case she wasn't offered counselling, on account of her being an unpaid volunteer, and in November of 1997 her original claim for compensation had been thrown out by a judge, who ruled that the police didn't owe her a duty of care. Her defence team put forth that a duty of care was appropriate in a situation where someone was asked to sit with one of the 20th century's most notorious criminals.
The 2011 TV drama Appropriate Adult, starring Emily Watson as Leach, focused on the part played by Leach in the police interviews with Fred West, the visits to the crime scenes, and Leach's prison visits and correspondence with West. Commenting on the film, retired police officer Bennet, who was in charge of the investigation, said that although the portrayals of Fred and Rose West were "hauntingly accurate", providing "an even deeper insight" into their psyche, Leach's role in the case was exaggerated. Paul Leach, Janet's oldest son, was upset at the way his mother was portrayed in the TV film.
In defence of Leach, Watson said, "Everyone involved in the case entered a moral universe for which they were completely unequipped", while in the words of writer Neil McKay, “I do feel that Janet’s story in many ways reflects how any of us would have reacted.”