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In their own words

The experiences of 50 young witnesses in criminal proceedings

Front cover of In their own wordsBy Joyce Plotnikoff and Richard Woolfson (December 2004)

In their own words: the experiences of 50 young witnesses in criminal proceedings - executive summary (PDF, 200KB)

The NSPCC in partnership with Victim Support

This report describes the experiences of 50 young witnesses who gave evidence in 15 of the 42 criminal justice areas in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. These were not 'tick the box' interviews. Instead, young people were invited to respond to prompt cards captioned with open-ended questions, for example:

  • When I was waiting to go to court I felt ??
  • When I was a witness, I was able to choose ??
  • When they asked me questions I felt ??
  • After court was over I felt ??

Some were better able to discuss their feelings and provide details than others and some did not comment on every prompt question. Where the report indicates that a certain number of children expressed a particular view, it does not necessarily mean that the remainder disagreed or felt differently. The full range of comments, whether positive or negative, are reflected in the text.

Witness profile

  • Witnesses were referred by 23 support organisations and gave evidence in 29 different courts.

  • Their ages ranged from 7 to 17 with an average age of 12.

  • Twenty-six were female and 46 were white.

  • Three gave evidence twice: two in magistrates' court trials and in resulting appeals to the Crown Court; and one in a retrial.

  • Thirty-two gave evidence concerning sexual offences.

  • All gave evidence for the prosecution: 36 in the Crown Court, eight in a magistrates' court and six in the youth court. They gave evidence in a total of 42 cases, of which 26 resulted in a conviction on some or all of the charges.

Waiting to go to trial

  • On average, witnesses in Crown Court trials waited 11.6 months before trial, those in the magistrates' court waited 9.9 months and those in the youth court cases waited 8.6 months.

  • Fourteen witnesses waited for 12 months or longer before their case came to trial.

  • 28 witnesses did not give evidence on the first date scheduled for trial. Cases involving 12 witnesses were rescheduled on two or three occasions.

  • Thirty-five described themselves as very nervous or scared in the pre-trial period. Nine had felt intimidated. Twenty described symptoms of anxiety. There was some overlap between those reporting pre-trial anxiety and those who said they had not been kept informed about the case. Six children mentioned having specific difficulties at school: none of them had been kept informed about what was happening with the court case.

  • Referral organisations supplied background information about 22 witnesses, of whom seven were described as having some type of vulnerability in addition to their youth. This information had been communicated to the court. However, a further 17 young witnesses had needs and concerns that were not identified on the referral form. These included a child attending a special needs school; two who were self-harming in the pre-trial period; three receiving medication from a GP for depression; several who were bedwetting and having trouble sleeping; and some having problems with school attendance as a result of the offence and the pending court case.

Special measures and witness choice

  • Of the 50 witnesses, 44 gave evidence by TV link at court, one gave evidence behind a screen in the courtroom and five gave evidence in open court.

  • Eighteen said they were not given a choice about anything associated with being a witness.

  • Ten felt they had a choice about how to give evidence.

  • Of the 44 witnesses giving evidence by TV link, only nine said they had chosen to do so but 28 preferred this method.

  • In some cases where young witnesses gave evidence by TV link and in the courtroom, children and their parents were unhappy about people watching from the public gallery. In addition to youth court cases, which are always held in private, members of the public were excluded from the courtroom during the evidence of four witnesses giving evidence by TV link but not for any of the five witnesses giving evidence in the courtroom.

Arrangements and physical facilities

  • Nine young witnesses had seen the defendant in or around the court building and a further five witnesses spent time in public areas or saw supporters of the defendant.

  • Nineteen young witnesses criticised facilities or arrangements while they were waiting. Problems included the size of the waiting room and lack of windows, the temperature, uncomfortable seating and having to go out of the secure area to use the toilet. Many were bored.

Pre-trial preparation

  • Fourteen young witnesses had no contact with a supporter before the trial date. The remainder had between one and eight pre-trial contacts.

  • Twenty-four young people received a pre-trial visit.

  • Eleven were critical of the lack of information and support in advance of the trial.

  • The things young witnesses found most helpful were contact with the supporter (32 of the 36 who had such contact); the pre-trial visit (23 of the 24 who received a visit); and NSPCC Young witness pack materials (17 of the 20 who saw them).

Refreshing the witness's memory

  • Seeing the videotaped statement for the first time was often distressing. Of the 39 witnesses who made a videotaped statement, 14 saw it before trial and almost all found this helpful. Nine who did not see their videotaped statement until trial thought that seeing it at an earlier stage would have helped them.

  • Of the 10 witnesses who made a written statement, four read it before trial. One requested to do so but was refused.

Waiting on the day of trial

  • The shortest wait for a young witness to give evidence was 20 minutes; the longest was over 20 hours spread over four days; and the average time waited was over five hours. Twenty-seven witnesses waited for three or more hours.

  • Eleven attended court and were sent away without giving evidence, some more than once.

  • Only two waited on standby at a location away from the court building. None gave evidence by remote TV link.

Meeting the advocates and the judiciary

  • Twenty-six young witnesses said they had met the prosecutor, five said they had met the defence lawyer and seven said they had met the judge or magistrates. Supporters reported that a greater number of meetings had taken place. However, a number of young witnesses were confused about the identity of people that they met at court.

  • Thirteen young witnesses said the meeting with the prosecutor (and, where it occurred, the judge/ magistrates or defence lawyer) had helped them cope with the court process.

The TV link

Of the 44 witnesses who gave evidence by TV link:

  • Nineteen had had a pre-trial visit. Ten were able to practice on the link during the visit.

  • Twelve disliked the TV link room (most often the confined space).

  • Three saw the defendant in the courtroom on the TV monitor.

  • Seven reported problems with the operation or quality of TV link equipment. In three cases, technical problems delayed the start of the witnesses' evidence.

  • Seventeen were upset by the idea of being seen by the defendant on the TV link. At least five had been told they could not be seen by the defendant and only found out later that this was not true.

  • Arrangements were made to meet the concerns of two witnesses who did not want to be seen by the defendant over the TV link. In one case, TV monitors in the courtroom which could have been seen by the defendant were covered. In the other, the witness gave evidence in the courtroom behind a screen. An application concerning a third witness was refused on the basis that there had been no intimidation before the trial.

The presence of a supporter

  • Out of six young people giving evidence in the courtroom, five were accompanied by someone from a support organisation and four were accompanied by a family member. All had chosen who accompanied them.

  • Out of 44 young witnesses giving evidence by TV link, 25 were accompanied by someone from a support organisation, 18 were accompanied only by a court usher, two were also accompanied by a family member and one was alone. Eight of these witnesses had chosen who accompanied them.

  • Thirteen young witnesses had only met the person in the TV link room on the day of trial. Many were unclear about who this person was.

  • Three girls did not wish to be accompanied by a male usher in the TV link room. Two of them had said so and were accompanied by a female usher.

  • Seventeen young people would have preferred to have someone familiar, usually a relative or carer, with them while they gave evidence.

Answering questions

  • Twenty-five young witnesses said that they did not understand some words or questions or found some questions confusing. Difficulty in understanding questions affected all age groups.

  • Eleven said questions were repetitive, four said the defence lawyer talked over their answers and three said questions were too fast.

  • Five thought they had been asked about things that it was unrealistic to expect them to remember.

  • Twenty-three were clear that the defence representative had accused them of lying, and sometimes the accusation was made more than once.

  • Two were asked to point to places on their body to demonstrate intimate touching and were distressed by this.

  • Five described defence lawyers as polite but 19 said the defence lawyer was not polite. Words used to describe them included: aggressive, sarcastic, cross, shouting, rude, harassing, disrespectful, arrogant, overpowering, badgering, scary and pushy.

  • Twenty-six said they had been able to tell the court everything they wanted, but 11 said they had not.

  • Two giving evidence in the courtroom found it intimidating when the defence advocate made them look towards the defendant.

  • One witness was asked to provide his address. Other witnesses were identified by their school.

  • Twenty-nine were very upset, distressed or angry when giving evidence: ten mentioned crying, feeling sick or sweating. Three girls mentioned their embarrassment having to describe intimate details to male lawyers. Two young witnesses had to be persuaded to resume giving evidence after a break.

  • Thirty-six supporters commented on whether the witness's needs were accommodated at court, including during questioning. Seventeen reported no concerns or that the witness's needs had been accommodated reasonably well.

  • Nineteen supporters reported problems with regard to the witness's needs being accommodated at court. Six criticised delays at court before the witness gave evidence and 13 were concerned about the way cross-examination had been conducted. Those concerned about cross-examination variously described it as: confusing, complex, rushed, repetitive, bullying and frightening.

Interventions by the judiciary

  • Sixteen witnesses said the bench intervened at some point when they were being questioned. Six of these had told the court they had a problem with some questions, but it was unclear whether the interventions came in response to what the witness said. All but three interventions took place in Crown Court.

  • A prosecutor objected to the manner of defence questioning in one case.

  • Twenty-eight young witnesses had been advised that they could ask for a break and eight said they had done so. One of these requests was refused. Some of the other young people said they just wanted 'to get it over with'.

After court was over

  • Thirty-four young witnesses recalled that someone at court had said 'thank you' to them. This was noted and appreciated.

  • The way in which witnesses were notified about the outcome of the court case was sometimes unsatisfactory. Interviewers commented that many witnesses had not been debriefed after court. Six witnesses first found out about the case outcome from items in the local media.

  • Six witnesses were positive about the experience of being a witness and thought that, overall, they had been treated fairly by the court; 16 were extremely negative about having been a witness and could not identify anything positive about the experience; and 27 described a mixed experience, in which they acknowledged positive elements as well as the stressful ones.

  • Twenty-five said they would be a witness again, although many qualified this by saying 'if it was a serious offence', 'only if I had to' or 'only if I was the only one who saw the offence'. Thirteen said they would refuse to act as a witness on a future occasion.

  • Only three of the 16 who reported a very negative experience would contemplate being a witness again. Seventeen of the 25 young people who said they would be a witness again had been thanked by someone for giving evidence.

  • By the time of the interviews for this study, 42 witnesses were fairly positive about putting the case behind them. For eight witnesses, however, the case was still a live issue (five of these cases had resulted in acquittal on all charges or the ones relating to the witness). Some of those still troubled in the aftermath of the case felt intimidated by the defendant and his associates.

  • A parent or carer was present at 35 interviews. Six were satisfied about the way their children were dealt with, often praising the support provided. However, 22 parents or carers were critical of what happened to their children at court.

  • Interviewers noted the enormous influence of parents and carers in helping the young people through the court process; conversely, it was obviously more difficult for children to move on where parents were left with unresolved issues after the trial. It was evident to interviewers that support provided before and at court made a significant difference to children's attitudes and ability to cope, particularly for those who were vulnerable for reasons in addition to their youth.

Pre-trial therapy

  • Therapy was mentioned by the young person or their parent, carer or supporter in 15 interviews. Several mentioned difficulties in obtaining therapeutic help.

  • Seven had received some form of therapy or counselling before the trial. This help was ongoing after the trial for five of these young people. One parent had requested pre-trial therapy for her daughter from social services and was aggrieved that it had been refused.

  • Post-trial counselling had been offered to six witnesses. Only two wanted to go ahead. Three had been discouraged from seeking such help until after the trial. Two of them were unwilling to proceed because of the delay.

  • The mother of a six-year-old witness contributed to the study, although her son was not interviewed. She was told that her son could not have counselling in case it prejudiced the trial. After the trial, she felt that it was too late for him to have therapy.

'What I would like to say ??'

Many witnesses wanted to thank someone at court. Suggestions from young witnesses for the judiciary included:

  • Intervene to make sure things are fair in court, when lawyers intimidate young people and witnesses get confused.

  • Do not let defendants and the public see the witness on the TV link.

  • Do not let defendants and their friends know the witness's address and school.

  • Improve waiting areas.

Suggestions to lawyers included:

  • Introduce yourselves.

  • Listen more.

  • Stop being aggressive.

  • Slow down, explain what you mean and use simple words.

Suggestions to supporters included:

  • Listen to the witness, answer questions and give as much information as possible.

  • Tell witnesses that things may go wrong at court.

  • Get in touch early and keep in touch.

Finally, young people's advice to other young witnesses included:

  • Tell the truth.

  • Have a pre-trial visit with the supporter.

  • Ask for a break and say if you don't understand the questions.

  • Ask who will see you on the TV link.

  • Ask to meet the judge and lawyers.

  • Be prepared to be accused of lying.

  • Don't be afraid, just do your best.

Full report:

Plotnikoff, J. and Woolfson, R. (2004) In their own words: the experiences of 50 young witnesses in criminal proceedings. London: NSPCC. [NSPCC Policy Practice Research Series].
ISBN: 1842280473