Fast-track young witness court cases says NSPCC
Press Releases - 03 July 2009
New NSPCC research published today (Friday 03 July) reveals young witnesses often have to wait more than a year to give evidence in Crown Court cases in England and Wales. Most of the children interviewed for the study (87 per cent) gave evidence in sex abuse or violence cases.
In response to the findings, the NSPCC is calling for the UK Government for England, Wales and Northern Ireland to enforce its policy of fast-tracking criminal cases involving young witnesses and monitor delays.(1)
The research shows that Crown Court trials in England and Wales involving child witnesses take on average two months longer than other cases.(2) And more than one in three children surveyed said their hearings had been rescheduled at least once.
The report Measuring Up?, co-funded by the NSPCC and Nuffield Foundation, is the largest, most in-depth study yet conducted of young witnesses' experiences in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Researchers interviewed 182 children, aged five to nineteen, parents and witness support professionals.
NSPCC lawyer Barbara Esam said: "Court appearances are naturally stressful for anyone, let alone a young child who might be giving evidence about abuse they've suffered. These excessive delays only add to that pressure and interfere with justice. Speeding up young witness cases has been government policy since 1988 and is frequently re-stated but has still not been achieved.
"Our research shows that on average there is a 13 month gap between a child reporting an offence and the start of a Crown Court trial. (3) One parent of a ten-year-old said their child was bedwetting in the run-up to each of three rescheduled dates. The first trial should have been March but did not take place until December.
"This is a crucial issue and was at the centre of a recent Appeal Court case where the judges re-iterated that these trials should be fast -tracked.(4) The child is usually the only witness for the prosecution case against a defendant, particularly child sexual abuse cases. If the courts do not act quickly to reduce court delays, this risks undermining evidence from children which will in turn undermine the criminal justice system.
"Policies for the judiciary, courts and prosecutors say cases involving children should get priority listing but this research shows such trials actually take longer to get to court. If the situation can't be improved then at the very least there should be videoed cross-examination to avoid courtroom ordeals like that suffered by the child raped by Baby Peter's step-father."(5)
One in five young witnesses reported feeling intimidated in the run-up to the trial.(6) And almost half (45 per cent) of those interviewed who attended court had seen the defendant when entering, leaving or waiting in the court building.
One parent of a 17-year-old witness said: "We had to walk past the defendant and his family to go into court, they were hissing and laughing at us."
Young witness Carol, 15, said: "We were not kept apart [from the defendants]. On the first day, we were in the same main area as all the defendants. We complained but we also saw them on the second day."
To eliminate these problems the NSPCC is calling on the UK Government for England, Wales and Northern Ireland to make sure remote link facilities are available for young witnesses to give evidence away from the court room. The children's charity pioneered the first such facility in Exeter in 2002.
Barbara Esam added: "Giving evidence away from the courtroom helps children feel more secure and relaxed, and enables them to give their best evidence. All children should have this option open to them, particularly if they are at risk of intimidation."
Measuring Up? Evaluating implementation of Government commitments to young witnesses in criminal proceedings by Joyce Plotnikoff and Richard Woolfson is available to download from www.nspcc.org.uk/measuringup
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Notes to editors
(1) The Scottish criminal justice system, under the devolved Scottish Parliament, is separate and distinct from the criminal justice system in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The research does not cover the Scottish criminal justice system.
(2) The average time between sending or committal and start of trial for Crown Court trials in England and Wales in 2007 was 24.1 weeks, compared with an average of 32 weeks for 50 young witnesses for whom study data were available. (Measuring Up? p.32) In all three categories (magistrates', youth and Crown Court trials), pre-trial delay for young witnesses in the study was longer, on average, than for all criminal cases in the most recent available statistical reports. (Measuring Up? p.32)
(3) In the Crown Court in England and Wales, the average time for 61 young witnesses between reporting offences and trial was around 13 months (ranging from six to 67 months). (Measuring Up? p.34)
(4) Court of Appeal, Criminal Division: Regina v. Janusz Marian Malicki, 12 February 2009.
(5) In 2004, the government announced that it would not implement the provision on pre-trial cross-examination in section 28, Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999. This decision was based in part on a briefing paper suggesting that "case processing [of young witness cases] has dramatically changed in recent years… apparently proving effective in bringing serious offences to trial within months" (para 107, Birch and Powell, 2004). (Measuring Up? p.33)
(6) In the run up to the trial, 20 per cent of child witnesses who described themselves as worried or anxious said they were intimidated by the offender or the offender's friends/family (Measuring Up? p.136)
About the NSPCC
The NSPCC is the UK's leading children charity specialising in child protection and the prevention of cruelty to children. The NSPCC's purpose is to end cruelty to children FULL STOP. The NSPCC runs projects and services across the United Kingdom and Channel Islands, including ChildLine, the UK's free, confidential 24-hour helpline for children and young people. The NSPCC helps over 10,000 children and their families every year.
About the Nuffield Foundation
The Nuffield Foundation is one of the UK's best known charitable trusts which was established in 1943 by Lord Nuffield, the founder of Morris Motors. The Foundation's widest charitable object is 'the advancement of social well-being', particularly through research and practical experiment. It aims to achieve this by supporting work which will bring about improvements in society, and which is founded on careful reflection and informed by objective and reliable evidence. The Foundation has long had an interest in children's welfare and has supported this project to stimulate public discussion and policy development. The views expressed are however those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Foundation.
About report authors Joyce Plotnikoff and Richard Woolfson
In 2007, J and R completed two projects for the Ministry of Justice: the evaluation of the intermediary Special Measure and a comparison of young witness support services. Other publications include 'In Their Own Words: the experiences of 50 young witnesses in criminal proceedings' (NSPCC, 2004); 'An Evaluation of Child Witness Support' (2001); 'The Young Witness Pack' and 'Preparing young witnesses for court - A Handbook for child witness supporters' (1998); 'Children in Court' (1996) and 'Prosecuting Child Abuse' (1995). They coordinated the DVDs 'Giving Evidence: what's it really like?' for young witnesses (2000) and 'A Case for Balance', demonstrating good practice for judges and lawyers when children give evidence (1997).