Children in court

The judicial system in this country is in serious need of an overhaul, especially where children are the witnesses. The NSPCC published research to show that last year in England and Wales there were 23,000 reported cases of child sexual abuse and fewer than a quarter of these were prosecuted.

They also found that of the children who gave evidence in these cases are entitled to a registered intermediary, who is neutral in the matter, and is there to demystify the court process and explain the processes in a child friendly way. Only 2% of all children giving evidence received this service. Surely we can improve on this. It’s obvious that the court system and process will cause many children to freeze, become easily scared or just be totally overwhelmed.

I have often raised the issue about the way that we treat children in this country within the judicial system. Our system of justice is an adversarial one in which the whole thrust revolves around winning. In many parts of the European continent, however, they have adopted an inquisitorial approach where the emphasis is to get at the truth. In France they have a system where there is a magistrate called the Juge Des Enfants who can, if he or she wishes, spend much more time looking into the background of the case. They’re trained more in social sciences as well as the law. In fact, I have heard of a situation where the magistrate even lived with the family for a few days to see what the dynamic was like.

We all have heard the horror stories of defence barristers cross examining children intensely and aggressively. If the child just can’t stand this pressure any more, even if they’re telling the truth, the case collapses. I know that we have introduced some changes such as video links, less formal court rooms and screens for witnesses if necessary, but there is a long way to go and a vulnerable child deserves what we already have judged to be appropriate – which is at the very least an appointed adult to make sure they are treated fairly and understand everything that is going on. There’s nothing in these suggestions that take away from the rights of any adult to a fair trial and a fair hearing but it does create an atmosphere of opportunity that abusers know that if they ever should be brought to court and it’s just their word against the child they will have an automatic advantage.

Many times in the past when I was working on the front line I had to take cases to the civil court to obtain an order on the child victim when the criminal court was inadequate to deal with the situation. This, even though the judge in the civil court could make a finding a fact against an adult, was almost a further abuse on the child who often was made to feel a victim once again. It can’t be beyond our wit to consider further changes to the judicial system or even to recruit those that should be there already to represent some of the most vulnerable, damaged people in society.

What message do we give out?

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