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.

 

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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.

Why are Remote Sites so Important? – Victoria’s Story

The lack of remote sites in the UK means many young victims and witnesses still have to go to court to give evidence. This is a frightening and intimidating prospect – particularly given that they risk bumping into their abuser.

Victoria’s* daughter Iris* had to give evidence against her abuser Alex* at court due to a lack of remote sites:

“We were determined to ensure Iris didn’t have to see Alex, constantly being on our guard during the long hours waiting to give evidence. Alex and his supporters had been intimidating us since his arrest and we were all nervous about seeing him.

Despite our efforts, the lack of separate entrances meant that we saw Alex and his supporters outside the court when returning from getting Iris some lunch. Seeing Alex devastated Iris, she became much more nervous and stressed. She wasn’t in a fit state to give her best evidence.”

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Victoria is clear that being able to give her evidence from a remote site would have helped Iris, and prevented her being so traumatised by the process.

“Iris’ court experience felt like a second abuse. One of the worst parts is knowing there are things that could have improved Iris’ experience and avoided the trauma she experienced bringing her abuser to justice. If she had been able to give evidence from a remote location via a video link, she would not have seen Alex and been forced to relive the abuse and intimidation he subjected her to.”

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.

*Names have been changed to protect identity

Why do Young Witnesses need Registered Intermediaries? – A Case Study

The NSPCC’s Order in Court campaign is calling for all young witnesses to have access to a Registered Intermediary.

The below example, taken from a real case, highlights the importance of Registered Intermediaries in ensuring children can understand what is happening during a trial, without being traumatised by inappropriate and confusing questionning.


NSPCC Order in Court campaignA Registered Intermediary was assigned to the case of a distressed 6 year old who was the alleged victim of rape.

The Registered Intermediary met with the Judge before the trial and recommended that he meet the child ahead of them giving evidence, which the judge did. It was arranged for the child to give evidence from the video-link room and the judge warned the defence barrister about the need to keep questions simple.

However, during the trial, the defence barrister continually used very difficult questioning despite both the judge and intermediary explaining the child could not understand this. As a result the child ran out of the video-link room and was too upset to answer any more questions. Even when the child returned the next day, he was still visibly upset by the defence barrister and refused to answer any questions.

When it looked as though the case would collapse, the judge worked with the registered intermediary and the judge set aside time to speak with the child. The judge allowed the child to visit the courtroom when it was not in session to become familiar with the surroundings. The child agreed to continue the questioning via video-link. Having worked with the intermediary to produce simplified questions which were agreed with the defence barrister, the judge led the questioning and the child was able to answer confidently and assertively now that he understood the questions.

The defendant was found guilty on all counts and the judge thanked the intermediary saying ‘your help and professionalism was invaluable’ and explained that, without the assistance of the Registered Intermediary the child wouldn’t have been able to complete their evidence.

21,000 children give evidence in court every year but with only 94 Registered Intermediaries, most don’t get this support. Find out more about the NSPCC’s Order in Court campaign and help ensure all young witnesses have access to a Registered Intermediary.

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“The defence barrister had destroyed my daughter” – Guest Blog by Mum of Young Witness

The below guest blog is written by Victoria*, about her daughter’s experience of giving evidence.

When my daughter, Iris*, was 13, she seemed to change. She became withdrawn, spending an increasing amount of time in her bedroom. I put it down to teenage life and when I asked her about it she said nothing was wrong.

What I didn’t realise then was that she was too scared and confused to tell me the truth.

NSPCC Order in Court campaignI remember the day Iris told me that Alex* had been sexually abusing her. We’d know him and his wife for years; Iris looked on them like an auntie and uncle, their children like cousins. I tried to stay calm but my world instantly crumbled around me.

For Iris, disclosing the abuse was like a release. She felt safe that Alex wasn’t going to be able to touch her again. It felt like a step forward and, initially, the response was hugely positive.

We were assigned an amazing officer called Lucy* who supported Iris through all her police interviews. Iris was able to give her video evidence at a local Public Protection Unit – it wasn’t like a police station at all and, whilst the experience was far from pleasant, Iris wasn’t traumatised, and even felt well enough to go back to school after giving her evidence.

The process couldn’t have been made easier for us. I naively thought that a court case would be similar.

But worse was definitely still to come.

Alex was arrested and we were given a court date, scheduled for 9 months later. The year waiting was awful.

A few weeks before the trial we were given a tour of the court, shown the video evidence room and, critically, the two entrances to the court. This was so important to Iris – she couldn’t cope with seeing Alex before the trial.

The trial was due to start on the Monday. But the Friday before, we were told the court location had changed and Iris wouldn’t be able to visit it. She was distraught and the confidence she had felt about giving evidence drained away.

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We were determined to ensure Iris didn’t have to see Alex, constantly being on our guard during the long hours waiting to give evidence. Alex and his supporters had been intimidating us since his arrest and we were all nervous about seeing him.

Despite our efforts, the lack of separate entrances meant that we saw Alex and his supporters outside the court when returning from getting Iris some lunch. Seeing Alex devastated Iris, she became much more nervous and stressed. She wasn’t in a fit state to give her best evidence.

I was heartbroken leaving Iris to give her evidence.

I understood why I wasn’t allowed to go with her, but she needed someone there, a professional who knew her and could support her through questioning. Instead, all she had was a stranger.

Iris managed to hold it together through prosecution questions; they were clear and concise and the barrister was sensitive with her. However, the defence barrister couldn’t have been more different. I wasn’t allowed in the court but Iris’ grandmother had to watch as Iris broke down, torn apart by the barrister’s questions – questions she didn’t understand and which were wholly unsuitable for a 14 year old.

When Iris returned from giving evidence she was hysterical. I’d never seen a child in such distress – her eyes were swollen and raw from crying. She was shuddering with tears.

I felt like the defence barrister had destroyed her.

I wasn’t supposed to touch her or be with her as we were both witnesses but I knew I needed to calm her down. I was distraught – I felt powerless and unable to console her.

When Iris returned on the second day for more questioning, we had to consider the very real probability of stopping the trial as we felt that the defence barrister’s questioning was tantamount to abuse.

20141050_Young_Witness_Campaign_600x600_1_AWOur barrister decided that if Iris broke down one more time he would request that trial be stopped as what Iris was going through now was far too traumatic and Alex would walk free. It felt like the defence barrister was trying to upset Iris to the point that this would happen. Iris felt like she was on trial.

Eventually, Alex was convicted, put on the sex offenders register and given a suspended sentence.

We had got justice for Iris but at a great price.

Iris’ court experience felt like a second abuse. One of the worst parts is knowing there are things that could have improved Iris’ experience and avoided the trauma she experienced bringing her abuser to justice. If she had been able to give evidence from a remote location via a video link, she would not have seen Alex and been forced to relive the abuse and intimidation he subjected her to.

If the defence barrister had been more sensitive in his approach, Iris would not have faced the disgusting questioning she did. He asked questions that confused her and that she didn’t understand, she felt threatened and scared. It took her a long time to get over the horror of that questioning.

When we were contacted about the possibility of an Appeal by Alex and a retrial, I was adamant that I was not putting Iris through the trauma of another court case.

I would rather the man who abused my daughter walked free than subject her to what she experienced in that court room again.

No parent should ever have to feel that way; no child should experience what Iris did – especially when there are such simple measures that could have stopped her being traumatised a second time by the court process. Our justice system is meant to protect victims, not abuse them further and I hope that change is made with urgency so that no child, and no family has to experience what we did.

*Names have been changed to protect identity

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Changes for young people within the justice system are crucial

Since the campaign launched on Monday 9 June, we have been delighted to receive such a positive response from members of the public.  Your support is absolutely crucial in achieving these changes to the justice system.  Below are two quotes from children who have been through the justice system, that show why these changes are so important:

“I am feeling so nervous about giving evidence in court. They are making me explain exactly what happened but I’m not sure I can cope with things like that just yet. Sometimes I wish I had never said anything. It was horrible before but if I knew all this was going to happen then maybe I wouldn’t have said anything.” (ChildLine, Female, Unknown age)

NSPCC Order in Court campaign“For a child or young person to give evidence in court it is so difficult and I don’t think I understood before I did it how bad and hard it would be.  I just feel a lot needs to change to provide victims with the right support throughout it all.” (ChildLine, Female, Unknown age)

Please take action now by writing to your MP at nspcc.org.uk/orderincourt and signing up to our thunderclap. Thank you for your support.

Giving evidence in court – a young person’s perspective

In 2013-14 ChildLine dealt with 1,199 counselling sessions where the young person required support or advice about attending court or needed support with their legal rights. This was an 11% year on year increase. One girl who gave evidence told the NSPCC:

“I want to die. I have to give evidence in a trial against someone. I don’t want to go as I’m worried they will be able to get to me afterwards. I know I have to be there in person and it’s the only way, but I just can’t cope. I feel trapped and like there is only one way out.” (ChildLine, Female, 16-18)

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