Important Progress, but More must be done for Young Witnesses – Guest Blog by Yasmin Qureshi MP

Yasmin-QureshiMP-230x300Yasmin Qureshi has been the Member of Parliament for Bolton South East since the 2010 General Election, as well as being a qualified barrister.


As a qualified barrister, specialising in complex and sensitive cases, I have followed the NSPCC’s Order in Court campaign with interest. I have been concerned to hear about the variability in provision for young witnesses in the criminal justice system. In particular, I was shocked to hear how few Registered Intermediaries are available to support young witnesses, and by the lack of remote sites to enable them to give evidence away from the court building.

As a barrister, I have been lucky enough to see much good practice; for example, children being dealt with sensitively and appropriately, and special provisions being put in place to limit further trauma as they give their evidence. It is alarming and shameful that these positive practices are not consistently applied in all cases with young witnesses throughout England and Wales. Instead this seems to be the exception, not the norm.

We need to create a criminal justice system that understands the needs of young and vulnerable witnesses and is able to adapt accordingly to secure the best possible evidence and deliver justice – whether that be by questioning the child via live-link from a more appropriate remote site, away from the court building, or by providing them with a Registered Intermediary who can help Lawyers and Judges understand the communication needs of the child and the most appropriate method of questioning. Indeed a combination of support measures should be tailored to the individual child’s needs, but this can only happen if the support is available.

20141050_Young_Witness_Campaign_560x292_8_AWThe NSPCC’s campaign has highlighted the strength of feeling on this issue – not just from the public, but also from across the legal profession and from politicians too. In 1989, respected Judge Thomas Pigot set out his vision for a criminal justice system which treated young witnesses with the sensitivity and respect they need and deserve – stating that no child should have to come to the court building to give their evidence unless they wished to do so.

Twenty five years later, the impetus for change is overwhelming. Those of us who have seen best practice in action know that now is the time for a culture shift within our criminal justice system. The needs of young and vulnerable witnesses should be consistently recognised and measures taken to support them should simply be part of standard, expected good practice.

The Government’s recent announcement of a package of actions to strengthen victims’ rights is certainly a step in the right direction. It is the result of cumulative pressure from both inside and outside the criminal justice system. The Government has committed to rolling out the use of pre-recorded evidence nationally – an important step in minimising delays for victims, who often have to wait months to give evidence in a trial, and thus reducing the trauma of giving evidence. The Government also promised at least one non-court remote site available in each court region, recognising the need to change the way vulnerable victims give evidence.NSPCC Order in Court image

However, there’s still a lot more to be done to achieve a system which treats children with the dignity and care they deserve in the pursuit of justice. For example, among the Government’s measures there was no mention of Registered Intermediaries, who are vital in facilitating communication between the court and the young witness. With over 21,000 children giving evidence each year but fewer than 100 Registered Intermediaries throughout England and Wales, too many are missing out on this vital resource and, as a result, their right to access justice.

I am heartened by the recent Government commitment to ensuring that all publicly-funded lawyers have specialist, accredited training on vulnerable witnesses before acting in serious sexual offence cases. This training must be put in place in good speed, and there can be no justification for delay. Young witnesses must not wait another 25 years.

20141050_Young_Witness_Campaign_240x240_AWAs a barrister, and now as an MP, the pursuit of justice has always been at the heart of what I do. That’s why the Order in Court campaign is so important and it is why I will continue to work for a criminal justice system which ensures access to justice for all, especially our most vulnerable, and which limits further trauma and distress in pursuit of this.

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Message from NSPCC chief executive, Peter Wanless

I am delighted to bring you news of a major success today for the Order in Court campaign.

Under their victims’ rights reforms, the Government have announced that by March 2015 they will ensure:

  • there is compulsory training for barristers who take part in sexual abuse cases
  • vulnerable witnesses can choose to give evidence from a place where they feel comfortable, rather than requiring them to go to court, with at least one such location available in each court region

These are incredibly positive steps, which have the potential to reduce significantly the trauma suffered by many vulnerable young witnesses and victims.

Twenty-five years after a better deal for child witnesses was recommended by a leading judge we now seem to have finally set course for this to become a reality. However, this is just the start of a journey which must result in a criminal justice system treating children in the right way when they are courageous enough to help bring abusers to justice. And in particular we will  continue to campaign for child witnesses to have the support of a Registered Intermediary, a trained communications expert, if required.

This is fantastic news and we will continue to keep you updated as more detailed plans emerge.

Simple actions to limit further ordeal for Rotherham victims – Comment by Lisa Harker, NSPCC

Lisa Harker is Director of Strategy, Policy and Evidence at NSPCC

NSPCC Order in Court campaignThe events in Rotherham bring into sharp relief the challenge we face as a society in keeping children safe from abuse and ensuring victims of these horrific crimes get the help and support they need: 1400 children intimidated, sexually exploited and deeply harmed in ways we can barely begin to imagine, yet dismissed as unworthy of protection even when they found the courage to seek help from the authorities.

What happened in Rotherham was more than a consequence of the way that the police and children’s services work – although this mattered too.  Rather, it was the result of a culture that was prepared to tolerate the existence of sexual abuse and which refused to see “troublesome” teenagers as victims, in need of protection and support.

We should be clear that Rotherham is not an isolated case. Shocking as it is, it already follows high profile cases of widespread sexual abuse in other towns and cities. Right now there are tens of thousands of children who have been sexually abused and urgently need help to rebuild their lives. It is a national disgrace that there is such a dearth of support for children in these circumstances.

20141050_Young_Witness_Campaign_600x600_10_AWWhat’s more, it’s clear that the horrendous abuse suffered by the young girls in Rotherham and in places like Oxford, Telford, Rochdale and Derby is just one part of a grotesque experience for them. It’s hard to fathom and an unpalatable fact to take that, even if a victim in this nightmarish situation manages to persuade someone in authority that they have been groomed, raped or hired out for sex and a prosecution ensues, they will still have to brace themselves for a potentially traumatic court hearing.

These young victims face the daunting prospect of re-living these painful, terrifying, degrading times for a judge, jury, barristers and public gallery. And for some children who have already endured abuse beyond the nightmares of most people this is simply a step too far.

Twenty-five years ago respected High Court Judge, Thomas Pigot, produced a ground-breaking report which recommended no child witness should have to appear in a court unless they wanted to.

Yet all these years later, major changes are still needed. The justice system remains far too intimidating for child witnesses: the lack of remote sites means 99% of children still have to attend the court building where they run the risk of bumping into the very person accused of abusing them. For many children the mere prospect of being in the same building as their abuser can result in them being unable to give their evidence.

20141050_Young_Witness_Campaign_600x600_1_AWThe Rotherham Report highlighted the voice of one young victim who said that witnesses needed much more support to help them through the whole process from the beginning. This chimes with what young people tell us through ChildLine where, last year, 1200 children contacted us to express their concerns and fears about giving evidence.

Whilst the cultural shift required in the way we view and treat victims will take time, there are simple actions the Government could be taking now to improve the situation for thousands of young victims of sexual abuse and exploitation. That’s why the NSPCC continues to push the Government, through our Order in Court campaign, to commit to expanding the number of remote sites so that more children can give evidence away from the court building. You can help us by adding your name to our e-petition, which we are taking to Downing Street this Friday.

NSPCC Order in CourtThe terrible cases exposed in Rotherham have focused all our attention on the need to make sure victims get the best possible support and are protected from further abuse. It serves only to increase our determination to help more children and young people and ensure that no child is traumatised in pursuit of justice, or left too frightened to tell their story because of what might face them at court.

Add your name to the Order in Court e-petition, calling on Government to ensure there is at least one remote site in each region so that more children can give evidence away from court.

 

Support for Young Witnesses: a Human Rights Issue – Guest Blog by Paola Uccellari

 Logo-Colour-HiRes-small (2)Paola Uccellari is Director at CRAE – Children’s Rights Alliance for England. 


Paola

“Reading the experiences of the brave children on this website is tough. Their shocking stories show how far we still have to go if children’s human rights to be protected from violence, abuse, neglect and harm are to be made real. Too few children are able to tell someone about their abuse. Often these children have been abused by someone they love – so some of the people that children would normally speak to when they need help are out of bounds. It is heartbreaking to imagine how these children must feel when the authorities they ask for protection make their experience even worse through their treatment of child victims of abuse. It is appalling that the system that prosecutes those who abuse children is too often inflicting a whole new sort of abuse.

The very least we can do is make sure there is a system which is designed around children, designed to end – not prolong – their trauma. A system designed to ensure they get justice, a fundamental human right. A system which does all it can to ensure they are not further harmed by this process, again, a fundamental human right.

Twenty five years ago a thorough report by Judge Thomas Pigot recommended that our justice system be re-designed to give children a chance to tell their story in the safest way possible. This recommendation reflects the requirements of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was drawn up at the same time.

20141050_Young_Witness_Campaign_600x600_1_AWWhen a child is abused, the feelings of horror and outrage we experience come from our very basic instinct that children are special and deserve our protection. This need to protect children from harm forms the basis of the laws and conventions drawn up to protect children’s human rights. These laws are clear that children are especially vulnerable to human rights abuses. They recognise that children are vulnerable whenever they come into contact with a system designed by and for adults, a system which is often hard to understand, frightening and hugely intimidating. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child says that children not only have the right to be listened to but also the right to be protected from severe mental and emotional harm – something that is all too common for those children who are brave enough to give evidence on their traumatic experiences of abuse in our courtrooms.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which interprets the Convention, has recognised that “much of the violence perpetrated against children goes unchallenged … due to the lack of child-friendly reporting mechanisms. For example, they have no one to whom they can report in confidence and safety”. It has been clear that “a child cannot be heard effectively where the environment is intimidating, hostile, insensitive or inappropriate for her or his age”. With this in mind, it has told states which have signed up to the Convention, which includes the United Kingdom that “the proceedings should be conducted in an atmosphere enabling the child to participate and to express her/himself freely”.

NSPCC Order in Court campaignThe UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has recognised that any hearing for a child ”is a difficult process that can have a traumatic impact on the child”. It has said this must take place in “an environment in which the child feels respected and secure when freely expressing her or his opinions”. It stresses the need for processes to be both “accessible and child‑appropriate”, and for children to be provided with adequate and appropriate information in relation to the proceedings.

The UN Committee is clear that the adaptations and protections which are important to allow child victims to participate effectively and safely in criminal proceedings are also owed to those children who are accused of crimes. This makes sense. Children who appear in court as defendants can also find the experience frightening and confusing, making it difficult to participate effectively and defend themselves. They can be very damaged by the experience which can then seriously undermine their chances of rehabilitation. To distinguish between the rights of child defendants and witnesses to adaptations in court proceedings is inappropriate when one considers that they are often the same children – a high proportion of the children who end up accused of crimes have been victims of abuse or other crimes in the past.

20141050_Young_Witness_Campaign_600x600_10_AWIt is shameful that, 25 years after we signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, we are still failing to act on these laws and recommendations. We need a system which puts protecting children at the start, middle and end of its work. A system which makes real the commitment we made as a country when we signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. A system which ensures every child who is brave enough to take the first step has their human rights to gain justice, while being protected from harm, upheld. Those children need that system now.”

Please support the Order in Court campaign by signing the e-petition here

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Support our e-petition to Government so No Child has to Face their Abuser at Court

NSPCC Order in CourtThank you to everyone who has already supported the NSPCC’s Order in Court campaign to improve the treatment of young victims and witnesses in the criminal justice system.

We are really grateful for your support so far, but we need you to help us keep up the pressure on Government to show them just how important this is.

Please support our e-petition, calling on the Government to ensure there is at least one remote site in each region so that more children can give evidence away from court.

Why are remote sites so important?

Court buildings are not appropriate places for children. Court buildings are places where very anxious, angry and upset adults deal with stressful, upsetting issues. The intimidating, adult environment can have a significant impact on a child’s ability to give their best evidence. In many cases children have to face the prospect of seeing the defendant and their supporters.20141050_Young_Witness_Campaign_600x600_10_AW

A remote link is a video link to the courtroom from a location away from the court building. This enables young witnesses to give their evidence without physically having to enter a court building, reducing the stress to a child and removing the fear of seeing the defendent. Children who feel safe, calm and secure are also better able to give their best evidence.

Twenty-five years after a landmark report to government by Judge Pigot recommended no young witness should have to give their evidence in the courtroom ‘unless he or she wishes to do so’ 99 per cent* still have to go to a court building.

How can you help?

Please support our e-petition, calling on the Government to ensure there is at least one remote site in each region so that more children can give evidence away from court.

We are aiming to get 21,000 signatures on the e-petition – one for every child that gives evidence in court each year. Help us reach our target by signing the petition, sharing it with friends and shouting about it on social media.

*Based on responses to an NSPCC Freedom of Information request to all police forces in England and Wales March 2014

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Guest Blog: Young People share their experience of the Criminal Justice System

“You expect so much from the criminal justice system and it doesn’t happen”

This guest blog is written by two young people who themselves were victims of crime. Having been supported by a specialist Barnardo’s child sexual exploitation service, they now volunteer their time to help other young people who have been victims of child sexual exploitation, supporting them whilst they go through the court system and helping them to understand what to expect in court.

NSPCC Order in CourtWe hope that what we have to say helps change things for young people. In the past we have both been victims of crimes and would like to turn the most negative experience of our lives into the most positive.

We act as peer supporters to young victims of sexual offences going through the criminal justice process. We befriend and engage with these young people, we meet up with them with the help of an adult support worker. We help young people develop coping strategies and offer support and advice.

Unfortunately, most young people don’t get this support. When I was going through the court process I wished there was someone my age that could tell me what to expect. I wanted to be that person for other people.

“You expect so much from the criminal justice system and it doesn’t happen. I wanted to help someone get their answers.”

We need to teach judges and juries about sexual exploitation. This is very much needed. Young witnesses will have just experienced the most awful thing in their lives, they are not going to present as perfect witnesses, they will be emotionally tired and annoyed at the questions particularly if the barristers concentrate on the young person’s past.

“We want to help change the way judges and barristers talk to young people. They have got to realise that we don’t understand legal terms used in court.”

We have heard of barristers being rude and sarcastic, this is not acceptable, children and young people feel confused and threatened by such behaviour and become unable to give their best evidence. How is this justice? Because of the attitude of the judge and barristers in our trials we were made to feel like the defendant.

20141050_Young_Witness_Campaign_600x600_1_AWWe have a friend who was made to look like a naughty teenager in court, the prosecution focussed so much on her behaviour at school and the fact she was in care that the jury lost sight of what had happened to her and the defendant was acquitted.

We believe that if judges and barristers had had a better understanding of how our friend’s situation made her vulnerable to exploitation, this would have been conveyed to the jury and they wouldn’t have assumed she was merely an attention seeker. They would have seen she was looking for love and was exploited because of it.

We feel she was let down by the criminal justice system because legal professionals don’t understand how sexual exploitation can impact on a young person’s life. They don’t have a clue, which means juries don’t understand it either- no wonder they find defendants not guilty.

We want children’s views to be taken into account when deciding how they should give evidence. We feel this is particularly important as at the moment young people don’t get asked and assumptions are made. When the young person is at their lowest point they need to feel they have some power of what is happening to them.

I was told I would be giving evidence in a video link room, there was no choice. All I heard from criminal justice professionals was ‘I think it would be best for you.’ That seemed so cheeky! How do they know how I’d feel about something if I’m not asked?

“We want all young people to have the choice about where they give evidence – whether that be in court or from a remote site. Currently, young people don’t get this.”

As part of our role we have also been involved in wider issues. We are keen to make a difference to the criminal justice system and have supported Barnardo’s with ideas for training judges and barristers in how to work with young witnesses in sexual exploitation trials. We are keen to explode the myths and stereotypes relating to young people who have been victims of these crimes.

NSPCC Order in Court imageWe have met with the ushers at our local crown court and voiced our opinions on young witnesses having Independent Supporters in the video link room. We used our own experiences to explain why a young witness would wish to have additional emotional support other than that of an usher and how this can happen in a way that does not impact upon the fairness of the trial.

We felt let down by the justice system during our experience of court and believe there is much to be done to make sure the same doesn’t happen to other young people. We hope to help young people through our work but also hope that wider changes will be introduced to the criminal justice system so that all young people can give their evidence confidently and secure the justice they deserve.

You can find out more about the Order in Court campaign here. Please support our e-petition and help improve the criminal justice system for young victims and witnesses.

 

Yvonne’s Story

Oscar was so worried about going to court – He kept asking us whether Paul would be able to “get to him”. 

This guest blog is written by Yvonne*, whose grandson – just 5 at the time – had to face a horrific court experience after being abused by his dad.


“When my daughter Selina* first met her husband Paul* she was smitten. We were happy that she was so in love. Paul bought her flowers, took her out places and looked after her. He was always pleasant and well-mannered with us. Selina was really happy.

“When their son Oscar* was born Paul seemed to change. He seemed distant from Oscar and didn’t like spending time with him. His relationship with Selina had changed too; he had become very controlling and was angry a lot of the time, shouting at her and at Oscar. Paul’s temper would flare when Oscar couldn’t do things, even as a baby. Many times I heard Paul call Oscar ‘stupid’ or ‘a little brat’, he never seemed to have any patience with him. I would tell Paul not to shout but he wouldn’t listen. I noticed that Selina had become distant and withdrawn and not the young bubbly woman she once was. She had lost her confidence.

NSPCC Order in Court campaign“Oscar first told me his Daddy was hurting him when he was 2½ years old. I thought he meant that Paul had rough hands when he was dressing him or putting on lotion as I’d never seen him be physically violent with Oscar. It didn’t cross my mind that Paul was abusing him. It’s the last thing you think of.

“As Oscar grew older his behaviour changed. It felt like he was regressing back to being a baby, wanting to drink from a bottle instead of a cup and wetting and soiling himself where previously he’d been potty trained. Selina was also being told that Oscar was being aggressive at nursery, and had bruises that neither Oscar nor Selina could explain.

“As Paul became more and more aggressive, Selina realised she couldn’t put up with his behaviour anymore and moved in with us. Oscar seemed a lot happier living with us and away from his Dad and didn’t seem to miss him at all. His behaviour at nursery improved and he stopped wetting the bed. One day Oscar thanked me and when I asked why, he said “for making me safe”.

“A few months later Oscar told Selina what his Dad had been doing to him. He disclosed that Paul had been sexually abusing him. He was just four years old. My world crumbled.

“Over the next few weeks as we tried to come to terms with what Oscar had said, we reported the abuse to our doctor, and the Police and Children’s Services and Paul was arrested and charged with sexual activity with a child. Oscar had to go through medical examinations and doctors found medical evidence of sexual abuse he’d described. He continued to tell us in detail the things that Paul had done to him and we reported everything he said to the police. We had faith that everything we were telling them was going towards building a case against Paul so Oscar would be safe from him forever.

“It took over a year for the case to get to court. In that time we tried to keep things as normal as possible for Oscar. He had been assessed and examined and questioned by so many people that he was scared of strangers and we were worried about how he was going to cope in the court case. We were in contact with Victim Support and a volunteer came to the house with a book about the court room in child-friendly language and talked Oscar through what was going to happen on the day. They also made arrangements for us to visit the court room with Oscar so he could see the video room where he’d be giving evidence and the courthouse where people could watch him on the screen.

“The day we visited the court, Oscar was overwhelmed. We tried to make it fun for him, showing him his secret entrance that no one else could use and telling him he was going to be on TV. As we were given the tour we realised why he was so subdued, he was worried about being in the same building as his Dad.NSPCC Order in Court image

“After the visit Oscar was really agitated, he was suddenly worried about the court case and being so close to Paul. He kept asking us whether Paul would be able to “get to him” which was heart-breaking. He began to regress again and we felt like we were losing our little boy to the sexual abuse he’d been through.

“On the day of the trial we were so glad to have our separate court entrance so there was no chance of Oscar seeing Paul in the court house. The witness room we were given had lots of toys and video games for Oscar to play with yet I could tell he wasn’t happy. He was really unsettled and was worried again about Paul being so close. In the past, Paul had threatened Oscar to keep silent about the abuse by telling him that he’d take his Mum and grandparents away. Oscar was worried that with Paul being so close he could follow through with his threats.

“We were devastated to find out that the Victim Support volunteer who Oscar had met and come to trust wasn’t available to sit with him in the video conference room. Oscar was introduced to a stranger who he didn’t know or feel comfortable with and then taken to the video evidence suite to give his evidence. Oscar already felt unsafe and unsettled at the court and not having someone he knew with him seemed the last straw. To add to this, the court didn’t allow us to submit the medical evidence of the sexual abuse after Paul’s legal team successfully appealed against its inclusion. It meant a lot rested on Oscar’s evidence.

“Oscar was nervous and agitated going into the questioning. He was only 5 years old at the time of the trial and didn’t like being away from people he knew and being asked distressing questions about the abuse he’d been through. We’d never heard of Registered Intermediaries and so Oscar didn’t have any support understanding the questions, some of which were graphic questions about the abuse which upset him. Oscar’s evidence lasted less than 30 minutes because he felt unable to speak.

“After giving evidence Oscar returned to the witness room but wasn’t allowed to see his mum or spend any time with me. He became hysterical with worry that Paul had taken Selina away and he wouldn’t see her again. It was awful.

NSPCC Order in Court campaign visual“After 4 days in court, and jury deliberation there was not enough evidence to convict Paul of sexually abusing Oscar. It was a devastating blow.

“Since the trial Oscar has disclosed more information about the abuse and told us there is more that he remembers but he doesn’t like talking about it. He’s explicitly told us that he’s worried that if he tells us everything he remembers, he’ll be made to go back and see that “man in the wig again who scared and upset me”. He found the trial so distressing that he’s frozen from disclosing more of his awful memories.

“We’re still living with the effects of the abuse and the court case. Oscar lives in fear that Paul will get to him. We live behind locked gates, bolted doors and security cameras because that’s the only way Oscar feels safe. When we go into town to go shopping with Oscar we’re careful not to drive past the courtroom as it upsets Oscar and brings back the memories of the day.

“We feel like the court system failed us, failed Oscar and didn’t bring us justice. Had Oscar been able to give evidence from a remote site away from his abuser, with the support of someone he knew and trusted in the video evidencing room I know he would have felt strong and safe enough to tell the whole story of the horrific abuse he’d been through and Paul would be behind bars and safely away from other children.”

*Names and identifying details have been changed to protect individual’s identity.

Please take a moment to sign our e-petition so that children like Oscar don’t have to go to court to give their evidence. Thank you.