East Midlands: NSPCC calls for more support for young witnesses

Thousands of child sexual abuse victims are being left frightened, depressed and even suicidal after giving evidence in court - 25 years after a major government inquiry said they should never be forced to do so, the NSPCC reveals today.
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Guardian News

More than half of these young witnesses suffer symptoms of stress, following searing cross-examinations from lawyers or distressing court encounters with the person accused of abusing them.

Last year, the NSPCC’s ChildLine service helped 1,200 children who were deeply concerned about giving evidence – an 11 per cent increase on the previous year.

In a bid to help these young victims, the charity is today launching its ‘Order in Court’ campaign. The campaign aims to help reduce the distress that children feel when participating in criminal proceedings by calling for a justice system that is fit for children.

In 1989, the landmark Pigot Report recommended no young witness should ‘be required to appear in court during a trial unless he or she wishes to do so’. But very little has changed since then. There are still only a handful of video link sites around the country which allow children to give their evidence remotely, including in Derbyshire.

This means that virtually all - 99 per cent - of the 20,000 plus children who give evidence every year still have to do so from a court building.

Of 40 police forces in England and Wales who responded to a Freedom of Information request, just three – South Wales, Kent and Derbyshire- said they were using designated sites away from the court building for young witnesses. Even the world famous Old Bailey doesn’t have access to one – despite the fact that children as young as four have given evidence there.

Some of the abused children who contacted ChildLine said their court ordeal had left them feeling so desolate they had turned to self-harm or had contemplated suicide.

One young girl told ChidlLine counsellors: “I was raped last year and the court case has just come to an end. I am feeling really confused and have such mixed emotions now. I have had an absolutely terrible time getting through this and am having nightmares every night. I tried to kill myself last year because I felt so isolated and it was too difficult to speak about what was going on.”

And the mother of a 14-year-old who gave evidence against a man who sexually assaulted her was appalled by her daughter’s ‘barbaric’ treatment in court: “I’d never seen a child in so much distress. She was hysterical and shuddering with tears. I felt like the defence barrister had destroyed her. It was like she was on trial and it took her a long time to get over the horror of the questioning. We got justice but at a great price,” she said.

Although Pigot’s recommendations were enshrined in law under the 1999 Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act, not all have been fully implemented. One of these - allowing child victims to pre-record their evidence - is only just being piloted at crown courts in Liverpool, Leeds and Kingston.

Consequently, the NSPCC’s ‘Order in Court’ campaign is calling for the urgent implementation of the following changes across the UK including in the East Midlands:

• All young witnesses to be able to give evidence from a building away from the court premises.

• Compulsory training for lawyers and barristers to prevent ‘brutal’ court cross-examinations.

• Greater access to Registered Intermediaries.

Sandra McNair, NSPCC Regional Head of Service for children and families, said: “It’s criminal that after a quarter of a century, children are still being subjected to harrowing experiences in court to get the justice they deserve. Instead of getting the help they need many feel they are being abused for a second time when they give evidence.

“Surely the system should be making every effort to ensure this is not the terrifying ordeal many experience. If this is the view that children have of the court experience it’s likely to discourage others who have suffered to come forward. A child who has been sexually abused shouldn’t have to worry about bumping into the offender in court or being subjected to a brutal cross-examination by barristers. After all, if they are helped to give their best evidence it will be better for justice.

“Things must change dramatically – and we shouldn’t have to wait another 25 years to get a justice system that’s fit for children.”