Courts are intimidating places for anyone. I remember as a social worker having to attend court many times. It was rarely an enjoyable experience.
I was not alone in dreading giving evidence, many of my colleagues felt the same – the buildings were always intimidating, you could be left waiting for hours, the complex legal jargon could leave you completely confused and the cross examinations were always volatile.
It always made me think how much worse it would be if I wasn’t an adult; if I wasn’t a professional, used to the court environment and with colleagues and management to support me. What if I were a child, who had already suffered the trauma of abuse, being forced to relive it all again? Since then I have been left aghast by cases where children in this situation aren’t given proper support, where they have been accused of lying, cross-examined repeatedly for hours on end or asked wholly inappropriate questions for their age. And what’s more, they have been made to come to a court building to give their evidence where they might face seeing their abuser.
In all my work, I’ve always been clear that the welfare of a child must come first. Too often, it feels like this isn’t happening in our criminal justice system. Children who have been victims of, or witnesses to, abuse and other crimes need first and foremost to be protected from further harm, not subjected to a second traumatisation. Now, as an MP, I’m keen to make sure the needs of these children are heard in Parliament and are kept at the top of the Government’s agenda.
That’s why I recently asked the Victims Minister in Parliament what he made of comments by Judge Rook that all judges and lawyers taking on sexual offence cases should be required to undertake specialist and accredited training, so that vulnerable witnesses are questioned in a fair and appropriate way. From my time as a social worker, I know the importance of communicating effectively with children. Questioning children needs to be recognised for what it is – a specialist skill, requiring an understanding and appreciation of their development and communication needs.
We need to recognise the impact this intensive and inappropriate cross-examination can have on vulnerable children, particularly those who have already experienced incredibly traumatic incidences of abuse. Specialist training for judges and lawyers to enhance their skills in communicating with children will go a long way to tackling this, and to promoting the interests of justice.
I have also written to the Victims Minister asking him to consider other ways the Government can improve support for children giving evidence. I believe that every child who needs it should have access to a Registered Intermediary, whose role is to ensure that questions are appropriate and understandable. This isn’t just about a child’s welfare: A child who doesn’t understand what they are being asked cannot answer effectively. They cannot give their best evidence and they cannot contribute to justice being served. That’s why I find it so concerning that less than 4% of children currently have access to a Registered Intermediary to help them understand what is happening during a trial.
In addition, I have asked the Minister to take urgent action to increase the number of remote sites so that no child has to face the intimidating court environment when giving their evidence – something which I, even as an adult, found stressful.
This is why I raised this issue with the Victim’s Minister, and why I will continue to press the Government to commit to action on these issues – so that no child’s welfare is compromised in seeking the justice they deserve.