Seven years ago, my family was torn apart after my husband, Garry, was senselessly beaten to death on our doorstep by a group of drunken youths. The trauma of those early days was devastating enough but little did I know there was another big shock awaiting us.
Several months down the line our three daughters, Zoe, 18, Danielle, 15, and 12-year-old Amy were called as witnesses to their father’s death.
At the very least, I expected them to be treated with dignity, respect and sensitivity. How wrong I was. To my astonishment and outrage I had to sit, watching helplessly as defence barristers tore into them in the most brutal way. I couldn’t understand this callous approach to young witnesses who were doing their best to help deliver justice – it was appalling.
But then I began speaking to hundreds of crime victims in England and Wales and I now understand that my daughters are not alone in their experience. It keeps happening. In fact, thousands of children have to endure the intimidation and aggression of the court room. This must change.
I’m glad to see that improvements are slowly being introduced. Just a few weeks ago I had the opportunity to see one of the first instances of a child being able to record her evidence and cross examination in advance of the trial. This eliminated months of waiting for the case to come to trial and the pressure of giving evidence at a live trial.
This ground-breaking shift in the treatment of young witnesses is long overdue – by 25 years in fact. That’s how long we have been waiting for recommendations made by a senior judge to come into force. And it’s why the NSPCC has launched its Order in Court campaign to allow children to give their evidence away from a court and for barristers to be trained so they deliver more sensitive cross-examinations.
The young girl giving pre-recorded evidence was in a better position than many young witnesses. The trained staff at the court did an excellent job – they were friendly and did their best to make the little girl as comfortable as possible. But sadly she still had to go to an intimidating court building and wait anxiously in a small room until the court was ready to start.
The following day, I had the pleasure of visiting the NSPCC Young Witness Service in Northern Ireland, where children can give evidence via video link in a room away from the court building. There was no comparison.
The service ensures that young witnesses are supported by trained staff and volunteers who are focused on their needs and can ensure they understand the process.
They can wait to be called to give their evidence in a bright, safe and comfortable space, watching DVDs, playing games or reading books.
All of this helps to minimise the stress and anxiety that builds, often resulting in them breaking down and finding it difficult to give their evidence. And we shouldn’t under-estimate this stress. As we know from young witnesses who have contacted ChildLine, they can be driven to despair, harming themselves or even contemplating suicide.
All of this took me back to the trial of Garry’s murderers and how worried, stressed and upset our girls were while they waited to give evidence and throughout the proceedings.
It is surely unacceptable to put young people through this gut-wrenching process when simple measures the NSPCC is proposing would make the world of difference to them and serve justice by supporting them to give their best evidence.
As Victims’ Commissioner, I want to see all victims, including children, put first in the criminal justice system. I have learned the hard way that the needs of victims and witnesses are often easily forgotten. We must never underestimate the impact of crime on victims or the further traumatic experience of being a witness. Nor the strength that is required to face someone who has harmed you or your family.