Court ordeal is as bad as abuse

Sir Stephen Brown says fundamental changes need to be made to the criminal justice system if sexually abused children are to get a fair hearing in court.

According to Home Office figures, there are currently more than 6,500 children who have been placed on child protection registers because they are at serious risk of sexual abuse by adults.

These are only the children we know about. There are many more still suffering, often at the hands of highly organised paedophile rings.

Yet when these children turn to the criminal justice system for help they often find themselves caught up in a system which could do more to help them to say what happened without suffering even more trauma and stress.

The NSPCC's Justice for Children Appeal aims to provide support for NSPCC investigation teams working with the police to uncover child sexual abuse. It also focuses on the needs of children and their families when cases come to court. Many children who have been through the process of giving evidence say that it was such a traumatic experience that they would not report abuse if it happened again.

Many say that the ordeal was as bad as the abuse itself. It is small wonder, then, that many are unable to give their evidence without breaking down and in some cases deciding that they can not continue to give their testimony.

Much good practice is already evident in certain courts. Before the trial, some children can visit the court so that they understand more about the courtroom setting and the roles of the judge, the jury, counsel and other court officials.

Some children know in advance if their initial video-taped evidence can be used in court, and whether they can be cross-examined by television link. Some will be able to take breaks when they give their evidence.

However, the way children are treated in court varies enormously from one court to the next. This means that no child witness can be given any reassurance about how their case will de dealt with.

Last minute changes are also a frequent occurrence. The help they were promised is often withdrawn, leaving young witnesses feeling unsettled, let down and even more frightened.

The NSPCC's aim is to make these measures available to all young witnesses and to work towards a system in which no child will ever have to give evidence live in court unless the child wishes to do so. This was the fundamental recommendation of the Pigot Report, which is now over 10 years' old.

The NSPCC campaign has vigorously put the case for full implementation of Judge Thomas Pigot's recommendations and recent amendments to the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Bill move us significantly towards that position.

The amendments will create a presumption in favour of allowing children to give their examination in chief by video evidence and, in sexual offences, there will also be a presumption to allow children to give their cross-examination evidence by video.

However, much remains to be done, and Justice for Children continues as an integral part of the recently launched NSPCC Full Stop Campaign. The legal profession is in a unique position to help bring about improvements.

Sir Stephen Brown is the appeal president of the NSPCC and president of the family division. To support the campaign, please call the NSPCC on 0171 825 2644. The Lawyer Awards raised over u24,000 for the NSPCC this year (see pages 24-29).