Lawyers reject criticisms of treatment of child witnesses

Criminal lawyers have hit back at a recent report criticising the treatment of child witnesses, describing it as inaccurate and out of date.

The report, Going to Court: child witnesses in their own words, published last week by the charity Childline, claimed the criminal justice system was stacked against child witnesses and in need of urgent reform.

It argued that too many child abuse cases were dropped without explanation, that children were denied counselling before trial because of a perceived risk of tainting their evidence, and that cross-examination techniques often bullied and confused child witnesses.

Childline is calling for children to have the right to be cross-examined via a video link, for legal proceedings to be conducted more speedily, and for the judiciary to be better trained in child psychology.

Chief executive Valerie Howarth said: “The criminal justice system embroils thousands of abused children, but actually supports or protects very few of them.”

But criminal lawyers said Childline's criticisms were totally unfounded. They pointed out that numerous measures had been put in place to help children in court. These include the provision of children's rooms, a fast track system to get the trials to court quickly, the use of video links for evidence and cross-examination and special rules on questioning child witnesses.

Richard Carey-Hughes, secretary of the Criminal Bar Association, denied there was need for urgent reform. “We share a concern for children and are not complacent, but we do not agree with what is being said about what goes on,” he said.

“There have been a great number of changes and children receive special treatment all along.

“A lot has been done and people are sensitive, but when it comes down to it, the defendant does have a right to challenge his accuser whether he is a young person or an adult.”

Robert Roscoe, president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association and chair of the Law Society criminal law committee, agreed that the report did not paint the true picture.

“I think these might well have been rather more justifiable complaints four or five years ago. Everybody in the criminal justice system has made tremendous strides to alleviate the problems faced by child witnesses,” he said.

A new video on child witnesses, designed as a best practice guide for lawyers, is due to be launched in January. A Case for Balance was funded by the Bar Council and the Law Society. It will be distributed to all judges in England and Wales.