A JUDGE has criticised “unacceptable” delays in the case of a teacher who was yesterday cleared of sexually assaulting his pupils.

Judge Peter Armstrong made his comments after Neil Francis was found not guilty of all charges at Teesside Crown Court.

Mr Francis was alleged to have touched, stroked or rubbed the arms, leg, back, neck and shoulders of three girls aged under 13 in a sexual manner.

But the 33-year-old, who was suspended from the North Yorkshire primary school where he taught, was cleared on the eight counts of sexual assault by a jury which deliberated for less than 45 minutes.

After telling Mr Francis he was free to go, Judge Armstrong questioned why it had taken two years from the point at which child witnesses were interviewed by police to the case being brought to trial.

He said: “With witnesses of this age, it is not appropriate that they should have had to wait nearly two years from being videoed and giving evidence.”

The court had also heard how Mr Francis, of Castlemartin, Ingleby Barwick, Stockton, was suspended from the school after the allegations came to light, but wasn’t arrested and told of the precise nature of the complaints until a year later.

Mr Francis, who had denied the allegations, describing some of the claims as “preposterous”, told the court how he had been terrified at the prospect of arrest.

Judge Armstrong said: “The delay was unacceptable. This [case] should have been tried within six months.

“Somebody should have said it is dragging on for too long, it is time to bring it to a head.”

Prosecutor Simon Kealey said it had been a “substantial and complex” investigation by North Yorkshire Police. He said there had been problems with officers in the child abuse investigation team, at Northallerton, either being on long-term sick or on “restricted” duties.

Giving an example of the nature of the case, Mr Kealey said there had been nine strategy meetings between various agencies over the course of the investigation.

He told the judge: “Taken out of context it looks like it has all taken too long.”

But Judge Armstrong retorted: “In context it looks like it has taken too long.”

Mr Francis smiled as the verdicts were delivered, and was hugged by tearful family members.

He made no comment on leaving court.

A spokesman for North Yorkshire County Council’s Children and Young People’s Service said: “Established procedures set out in the guidelines for the safeguarding of children were followed throughout this case.

“Mr Francis’s suspension has not been lifted, and it is now for the school and the authority to decide how to take the matter forward.”

Acting Assistant Chief Constable Steve Read, of North Yorkshire police, said: “While disappointed at the outcome, we acknowledge the judge’s comments regarding the case.

“A full review of the investigation will be undertaken to assess any lessons learned and until this review is completed it would be inappropriate to comment further.”