Ensuring justice for all children

For a child, giving courtroom evidence is a harrowing ordeal. One charity is working to alleviate the suffering, writes Linda Tsang. Linda Tsang is a freelance journalist.

Justice through the eye of a child can often be frightening and bewildering.

“I'm frightened.” “I want my mum.” “He keeps asking me questions.” “I don't understand.” “I don't want to tell him rude things.” “Am I going to be sent to prison?” These are just some of the examples of soundbites from children who feel frightened rather than reassured by the law.

For a child, the ordeal of giving evidence can be just as traumatic as the abuse which he or she originally experienced.

There are no reported figures for how many child abuse cases are dropped before they come to court, or how many defendants walk free because the evidence of a child is deemed insufficient to secure a prosecution.

But children who have been physically and sexually abused or neglected often have to suffer further abuse at the hands of a legal system which is supposed to protect them.

The Justice for Children Appeal was set up by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) in 1996, with two main aims to improve the plight of children who are at risk of being abused by adults: firstly, to rescue children from sexual abuse by uncovering organised paedophile networks; and secondly, to make it easier for children to give evidence without feeling confused or intimidated by what they encounter in the process of the abuser being brought to justice.

That year, over 6,500 children were placed on child protection registers because they were seen as being at risk. They urgently needed protection, but were being made to relive their experiences in court – being let down by a justice system which treats vulnerable child witnesses as adults. The solution put forward by the NSPCC when it launched the Justice for Children campaign was to bring about reforms on three fronts:

NSPCC investigation teams to work with the police to uncover organised child sexual abuse and collect evidence from vulnerable children in a sensitive and appropriate way;

child witness support and advocacy teams to help children and their families prepare for what they can expect in court, so that they can answer questions accurately without being overwhelmed or intimidated and;

a public policy group to introduce far-reaching changes in legislation, policy and practice, to make the criminal justice system more child-friendly.

In 1997, the NSPCC produced a video entitled A Case for Balance, which demonstrates good practice when a child is a witness. In particular, it encourages judges to take a role in the management of child witness cases and minimise the stress to the children.

The use of TV links, first introduced under the Criminal Justice Act 1988, is seen as one of the most effective methods of questioning a child witness, and the least stressful way of giving evidence. But there can still be problems with the lack of familiarity with technology.

One 11-year-old child witness is quoted as saying: “At one stage, we could see the lawyer's ear and then different parts of his face. It was really weird. He was too close to the camera.”

Barrister Rebecca Poulet QC comments that: “The judge's unfamiliarity with the buttons sometimes presents awkwardness. Judges may forget to tell the child when there is about to be an adjournment, so that the camera is switched off in the child's room, and the child obviously does not know everyone has gone. Children find it strange if the person asking questions over the TV link does not look at them. You need to look up at the witness.” A Case for Balance addresses such problems.

The campaign has also produced a series of child witness packs which provide information and advice for the parents and carers of child witnesses, as well as an information booklet and activity book for the child witnesses themselves. The book explains what a witness does, who will be in court, what happens at court and what happens after the trial. It also includes games, puzzles and tips to help the child listen and answer questions, all as an attempt to lessen the strain on the child.

The current climate, where the media is full of horror headlines about paedophiles, from Sidney Cooke to the Belgian tragedy and the resurrection of coverage of the Mary Bell case, means that awareness of child abuse has never been higher – but how the justice system deals with both the offenders and the victims in child abuse cases continues to be problematic.

The NSPCC public policy group has had some impact. The Government recently outlined legislative proposals to deal with sex offenders under the Crime and Disorder Bill and the Crime (Sentences) Act. However, there is still a great deal of work to be done. That is evidenced by the fact that, from what was originally a year-long campaign, Justice for Children has become an ongoing one.

Vanni Treves, senior partner at Macfarlanes who chairs the Justice for Children fundraising board, says: “We set out to raise £3.3m and still have £1m to go.

“The work being done by the NSPCC in this area is crucial. The fact that there are 110,000 convicted child abusers in this country is one measure of the problem.”

There have been more recent high-profile functions to highlight the work of Justice for Children and the need for funds, including a reception at 10 Downing Street last November hosted by Cherie Booth QC, who is a member of the Justice for Children Appeal Board. The Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, will be hosting a party in aid of the appeal this October.

“Money can never buy justice,” said Booth. “But it can bring about change. Children turn to the legal system for justice. This appeal will help provide children with the best possible chance of seeing justice done.”