Page last updated at 05:01 GMT, Tuesday, 24 November 2009

NSPCC urges more support for child court witnesses

By Angus Crawford
BBC News

Graph showing number of kids listed as witnesses in court

More than 1,000 children under the age of 10 were listed as witnesses in courts in England and Wales last year, BBC News has learned.

The NSPCC says more should be done to support them, including letting them pre-record their evidence before trial.

The charity also wants intermediaries to be used more widely to help children understand the questions put to them.

The Criminal Bar Association said that while it was "upsetting" for children, all evidence must be tested in court.

Earlier this year, a four-year-old girl, who had been raped, became the youngest child to testify at the Old Bailey.

Her attacker, Steven Barker, who was also found guilty over the death of Baby Peter, will go to the Court of Appeal on Tuesday to try to challenge his rape conviction.

Victims themselves

Figures obtained by the BBC show that in England and Wales 1,116 under 10s were recorded by the witness management system in 2008/9.

FROM THE TODAY PROGRAMME

Of those, 667 were witnesses as they had been victims of crime themselves and 449 were listed as witnesses to offences committed against others.

The statistics do show, however, only those children who were due to appear in court, not how many actually went on to give evidence.

Barbara Esam, from the NSPCC, said the number of child witnesses uncovered by BBC News could actually be an underestimate.

ONE CHILD'S STORY
Emma was six when she told her mother Jill that a man had raped her.

The case took a year to get to court, but Emma couldn't have counselling because it might cause the case to collapse. The week before the trial she was shown round the court building, but said she was still "very worried" about what she had to do.

Emma gave evidence by video link, meaning the court and the defendant could see her, but she could only see the barrister asking questions.

Despite this, Jill said she was still unhappy: "This person is watching them on a screen and they're being made to squirm in their seats, being made to answer very distressing questions. It really is awful."

The man was eventually found guilty, but Jill said the court process was "torture".

"It felt like continued abuse," her mum added.

She also said three things could improve the situation for young witnesses - one being greater use of trained intermediaries to help frame questions from judges and lawyers.

Video link rooms, currently used by many vulnerable witnesses, should not be in the court building itself, she said.

And finally, she called for children to be allowed to record their evidence on video before trial.

This power, available under the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, but never activated, would mean they would never have to set foot inside a court building.

"It would be better for the child and better for the interests of justice - it could make a huge difference," Ms Esam said.

But Paul Mendelle QC, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, told the BBC: "There has to be a degree of seriousness about the occasion that does mean regrettably taking a child out of their comfort zone.

"That can be an upsetting experience for the child, but the courts and professionals are anxious to keep that to an absolute minimum."

Barker's young victim was just two when she was attacked, although the case did not come to court until two years later.

Her evidence was shown to the court as a pre-recorded video, but she was then cross-examined for 45 minutes.



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