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.