Support for Young Witnesses: a Human Rights Issue – Guest Blog by Paola Uccellari

 Logo-Colour-HiRes-small (2)Paola Uccellari is Director at CRAE – Children’s Rights Alliance for England. 


Paola

“Reading the experiences of the brave children on this website is tough. Their shocking stories show how far we still have to go if children’s human rights to be protected from violence, abuse, neglect and harm are to be made real. Too few children are able to tell someone about their abuse. Often these children have been abused by someone they love – so some of the people that children would normally speak to when they need help are out of bounds. It is heartbreaking to imagine how these children must feel when the authorities they ask for protection make their experience even worse through their treatment of child victims of abuse. It is appalling that the system that prosecutes those who abuse children is too often inflicting a whole new sort of abuse.

The very least we can do is make sure there is a system which is designed around children, designed to end – not prolong – their trauma. A system designed to ensure they get justice, a fundamental human right. A system which does all it can to ensure they are not further harmed by this process, again, a fundamental human right.

Twenty five years ago a thorough report by Judge Thomas Pigot recommended that our justice system be re-designed to give children a chance to tell their story in the safest way possible. This recommendation reflects the requirements of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was drawn up at the same time.

20141050_Young_Witness_Campaign_600x600_1_AWWhen a child is abused, the feelings of horror and outrage we experience come from our very basic instinct that children are special and deserve our protection. This need to protect children from harm forms the basis of the laws and conventions drawn up to protect children’s human rights. These laws are clear that children are especially vulnerable to human rights abuses. They recognise that children are vulnerable whenever they come into contact with a system designed by and for adults, a system which is often hard to understand, frightening and hugely intimidating. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child says that children not only have the right to be listened to but also the right to be protected from severe mental and emotional harm – something that is all too common for those children who are brave enough to give evidence on their traumatic experiences of abuse in our courtrooms.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which interprets the Convention, has recognised that “much of the violence perpetrated against children goes unchallenged … due to the lack of child-friendly reporting mechanisms. For example, they have no one to whom they can report in confidence and safety”. It has been clear that “a child cannot be heard effectively where the environment is intimidating, hostile, insensitive or inappropriate for her or his age”. With this in mind, it has told states which have signed up to the Convention, which includes the United Kingdom that “the proceedings should be conducted in an atmosphere enabling the child to participate and to express her/himself freely”.

NSPCC Order in Court campaignThe UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has recognised that any hearing for a child ”is a difficult process that can have a traumatic impact on the child”. It has said this must take place in “an environment in which the child feels respected and secure when freely expressing her or his opinions”. It stresses the need for processes to be both “accessible and child‑appropriate”, and for children to be provided with adequate and appropriate information in relation to the proceedings.

The UN Committee is clear that the adaptations and protections which are important to allow child victims to participate effectively and safely in criminal proceedings are also owed to those children who are accused of crimes. This makes sense. Children who appear in court as defendants can also find the experience frightening and confusing, making it difficult to participate effectively and defend themselves. They can be very damaged by the experience which can then seriously undermine their chances of rehabilitation. To distinguish between the rights of child defendants and witnesses to adaptations in court proceedings is inappropriate when one considers that they are often the same children – a high proportion of the children who end up accused of crimes have been victims of abuse or other crimes in the past.

20141050_Young_Witness_Campaign_600x600_10_AWIt is shameful that, 25 years after we signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, we are still failing to act on these laws and recommendations. We need a system which puts protecting children at the start, middle and end of its work. A system which makes real the commitment we made as a country when we signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. A system which ensures every child who is brave enough to take the first step has their human rights to gain justice, while being protected from harm, upheld. Those children need that system now.”

Please support the Order in Court campaign by signing the e-petition here

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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.

 

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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What is a Registered Intermediary and Why are they so important?

The NSPCC’s Order in Court campaign is calling for all young witnesses to have access to a Registered Intermediary. But what is a Registered Intermediary and why is their role so important?

Registered Intermediaries are specialist communication experts who help ensure young and vulnerable victims and witnesses can understand the questions being asked of them in court and that they can give their best evidence.

NSPCC Order in Court campaignOften children can be confused by complex questioning, meaning they fail to give accurate evidence or become distressed. Registered Intermediaries work with judges, barristers and the police to assess the communication abilities of the child and make recommendations about how best to question the child during the recording of their initial evidence and when giving their evidence at trial.

Registered Intermediaries are present when the child gives evidence and can provide young victims and witnesses with the communication support they need to give their evidence and achieve justice, protecting them from being traumatised by inappropriate questioning.

Why I’m Championing Young Victims and Witnesses in Parliament – Guest Blog by Emma Lewell-Buck MP

Emma Lewell-Buck 09Emma Lewell-Buck is a former social worker and now Member of Parliament for South Shields.

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.

NSPCC Order in Court campaignIt 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.

20141050_Young_Witness_Campaign_600x600_10_AWWe 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.

Too often, children are being made to feel like they are the ones on trial, not given the age-appropriate support they need at a time when they have to relive the most distressing of experiences.NSPCC Order in Court

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.

“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.