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.
The 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.
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.
As 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.