Campaign to cut child court stress

Witney Gazette: A poster for the NSPCC Order in Court campaign
A poster for the NSPCC Order in Court campaign

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 claims.

The NSPCC's ChildLine service helped 1200 children last year who were deeply concerned about giving evidence - an 11%t increase on the previous year. The children's charity is today launching its Order in Court campaign to help reduce the distress that children feel from having to face criminal proceedings.

It calls for a justice system that is fit for children which should allow all young witnesses to be able to give evidence from a building away from the court premises, involves compulsory training for lawyers and barristers to prevent brutal court cross-examinations and greater access to Registered Intermediaries.

The landmark 1989 Pigot Report recommendations were enshrined in law under the 1999 Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act and suggested that 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, the NSPCC notes. More video link sites are needed around the country to allow children to give their evidence remotely, the NSPCC says.

Among child sex victims who have felt further damaged by the British justice system is a 14-year-old who gave evidence against a man who sexually assaulted her. Her mother told the NSPCC that she was "appalled" by her daughter's "barbaric" treatment in court.

She said: "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."

NSPCC chief executive Peter Wanless 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."

Victims' Minister Damian Green said: " We must do everything we can to support child witnesses and help them give their best possible evidence to bring offenders to justice. That's why we are trialling pre recorded cross-examination to allow young and vulnerable witnesses to give evidence away from what can be an aggressive court room atmosphere.

"This is on top of a range of measures to help reduce the anxiety of attending court, including giving evidence behind a screen or the use of a registered intermediary, which has increased significantly over recent years.

"We have also brought in a new and improved Victims' Code with a section specially written to support young people. We will continue to explore ways we can use remote links and new technology to help witnesses give evidence from outside the court building."

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