Support our e-petition to Government so No Child has to Face their Abuser at Court

NSPCC Order in CourtThank you to everyone who has already supported the NSPCC’s Order in Court campaign to improve the treatment of young victims and witnesses in the criminal justice system.

We are really grateful for your support so far, but we need you to help us keep up the pressure on Government to show them just how important this is.

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.

Why are remote sites so important?

Court buildings are not appropriate places for children. Court buildings are places where very anxious, angry and upset adults deal with stressful, upsetting issues. The intimidating, adult environment can have a significant impact on a child’s ability to give their best evidence. In many cases children have to face the prospect of seeing the defendant and their supporters.20141050_Young_Witness_Campaign_600x600_10_AW

A remote link is a video link to the courtroom from a location away from the court building. This enables young witnesses to give their evidence without physically having to enter a court building, reducing the stress to a child and removing the fear of seeing the defendent. Children who feel safe, calm and secure are also better able to give their best evidence.

Twenty-five years after a landmark report to government by Judge Pigot recommended no young witness should have to give their evidence in the courtroom ‘unless he or she wishes to do so’ 99 per cent* still have to go to a court building.

How can you help?

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.

We are aiming to get 21,000 signatures on the e-petition – one for every child that gives evidence in court each year. Help us reach our target by signing the petition, sharing it with friends and shouting about it on social media.

*Based on responses to an NSPCC Freedom of Information request to all police forces in England and Wales March 2014

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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 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.

Dignity, respect and sensitivity: not too much to expect? – Guest blog from Baroness Newlove, Victims’ Commissioner

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.

Baroness Newlove visiting the Young Witness Service in Northern Ireland

Baroness Newlove visiting the Young Witness Service in Northern Ireland

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.NSPCC Order in Court image 2

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.

NSPCC Order in CourtThis campaign is something I applaud and I would urge you to help by sending a letter to your MP asking them to lobby government to deliver a justice system fit for children.

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.