Peter Wanless, chief executive of the NSPCC
By any measure 1989 was a momentous year. The Berlin Wall came crashing down and the idea of the worldwide web was conceived.
So, 25 years on Germany has been re-unified and we have seen astonishing advances in online technology. But is there evidence that things have improved so dramatically for the 20,000 or so young witnesses who pass through our courts in England and Wales every year?
Well, the jury isn’t even out on this. The answer is a resounding NO. And we know this because last year 1,200 children contacted our ChildLine service to reveal they had been left depressed, frightened, even suicidal by the experience of giving evidence against an abuser. One young girl was so devastated by her experience that her furious parents branded her ordeal ‘barbaric’, and were left wondering if their daughter had paid too high a price to get justice.
This is why today we have launched our Order in Court campaign to deliver a justice system that’s fit for children.We want them to have:
- The opportunity of giving evidence without going to court.
- Support from a qualified intermediary to help them understand the court process.
- And training for lawyers so they can cross-examine without confusing and frightening the young witnesses.
Thomas Pigot, was a highly experienced criminal court judge, who assembled an elite group of advisors from social services, the police, academia and the legal profession, after being asked by the then Home Secretary to look at new ways for abuse victims to give evidence in court. This came after NSPCC research showed an eight-fold increase in child sexual assault cases but with fewer than one in three of these resulting in a prosecution.
The charity said this lack of legal action was due to the reluctance of children to give evidence and the unwillingness of parents to put their sons and daughters through a stressful court appearance.
Pigot’s 75-page report, published in 1989, reflected this, noting that most children were disturbed by giving evidence which was a “harmful, oppressive and often traumatic experience”. And it added: “Quite radical changes are now required if the courts are to treat children in a humane and acceptable way.”
The judge and his colleagues quite rightly pointed out that the quality of evidence from children is improved if they are not under duress, which in turn is in the interests of justice. And, of course, if they didn’t take part in a prosecution the offender would almost certainly remain at liberty to abuse more children.
So to usher in a new dawn for young witnesses they recommended no child should have to appear in court unless they wanted to. They also urged better training for judges and lawyers who should learn how to speak to children and end “oppressive questioning”. There was also a call for communications experts – Registered Intermediaries – to be on hand to help children understand confusing legal terms.
Yet today children who have suffered the horror of sexual abuse can still find themselves facing bruising and confusing cross-examinations from lawyers. Fewer than five in every hundred will have the services of an intermediary to help them through the ordeal and there is barely a chance to give evidence via a video link set-up at a designated location away from the court building.
Even though the 1999 Youth and Criminal Evidence Act adopted this last recommendation it has not been implemented by any of the ensuing twelve Home Secretaries. In fact we know of ‘remote links’ at just a handful of sites throughout England and Wales. Remarkably there isn’t one in London where last year nearly 3,000 sex offences against children were recorded by police.
There is no official data showing how many young victims have benefited from this scarce resource. But as a guide one witness service, which operates at three of these sites, said only 15 children had used it in the last twelve months.
Most crown court buildings have a separate room where victims can give their evidence but some of these are described as ‘little more than broom cupboards.’ One even doubled as the judges’ garage.
Five years ago a four-year-old girl had to appear as a witness at the Old Bailey to tell a jury how she had been raped by Steven Barker, who was later jailed over the killing of Baby Peter Connelly.
She had to wait more than four hours before being called to give evidence and was then asked confusing questions while she sat in a sparse room with just a table and chair. When told she had to return to court the next day to face more cross-examination she burst into tears, saying she didn’t want to go back to ‘the naughty room’.
However the whole picture is not bleak. Kent police have introduced three specially adapted ‘remote sites’ for young witnesses. They are spacious, have sofas, toys and drinks machines. One legal executive who uses them said: “It’s a relaxed setting which makes it far more comfortable for the children when they give their evidence and helps put them at ease.”
So, why are there not more facilities like this? Why are we still failing children who summon tremendous courage to give evidence against the people who have abused them – especially as NSPCC research shows only around one in five child sexual assaults result in a prosecution?
One answer seems to be the lack of a ‘Young Victims Champion’ – someone who can tie together all the strands of this crucial part of the criminal justice system.
Judge Pigot ended his recommendations with these words: “We hope our report will focus public and political attention on this vital subject and that improvements will not be long delayed.”
Twenty-five years later the former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, echoed that sentiment: “The day will surely come, and in my view it has already arrived, when the requirement for the physical presence of a child witness or victim in the court building will be, and should be, regarded as a hangover from laughable, far off days of the quill and ink pen.”
Sadly that ‘hangover’ is persisting and while we recognise that the wheels of justice often turn slowly a delay of a quarter of a century is both unacceptable and shameful and has left us with a justice system still not fit for children.