Children in court - Part 1

Chapter one


This report concerns the support of child witnesses in the Crown Court provided by the Witness Service. The research, which was carried out between May 1995 and June 1996, evaluated a Witness Service pilot scheme for child witnesses in one court where new procedures were introduced and collected information from three additional courts where procedures for the support of child witnesses were already in place. This chapter describes the background to the research project.

Victim Support and the Witness Service

Research conducted in Bedfordshire and Oxford Victim Support schemes between 1988 to 1990 examined the experiences of children as victims, witnesses to crimes and members of households affected by crime.3 The research highlighted the previously underestimated effects of crime on children and contributed to the development of strategies to help them. The lessons learned were incorporated into the basic training programme for volunteers. However, there are limits to the categories of offence that can be referred to Victim Support. It is acknowledged in national policy that:

'schemes should not attempt to undertake responsibility in cases of neglect or in cases of emotional or sexual abuse occurring within the family. This work is the responsibility of Social Services Departments of the NSPCC'.4

In 1988, a Victim Support Working Party recommended that volunteers should be based at busy courts to assist victims and witnesses.5 A pilot project6 was set up which formed the basis of the court-based Witness Service, now extended to all Crown Court centres in England and Wales. During the pilot project, all the Witness Service schemes involved assisted children and their families who were called to court to give evidence.

At each Crown Court centre, the Witness Service is staffed by a salaried coordinator and a team of trained volunteers. It offers independent information and support to victims, witnesses and their families.7 All service personnel are vetted by the police and are bound by a court Code of Conduct agreed with the Lord Chancellor's Department.

The preparation of child witnesses to give evidence

'Preparation' of child witnesses means familiarisation with the court process in a way that does not prejudice the rights of the defendant. It does not involve discussing, rehearsing or practising the child's evidence. The preparation process received official recognition for the first time with the launch of the Child Witness Pack by the Lord Chancellor in 1993.8 The Pack contained two booklets for child witnesses and one for parents. The Pack stated that the children's booklets were:

'designed to be read with an adult who is familiar with court procedures and can answer any questions the child may have. This adult will also be responsible for assessing a particular child's needs and passing this information to the police, Crown Prosecution Service and court staff'.

When the Pack was launched, no guidance was given on who should be responsible for ensuring its use. A joint letter issued by government departments9 to accompany the Pack stated that:

'There are many practitioners working in this field - both professional and voluntary - who could equally well perform the role and it will be important to determine, in each individual case, who is best placed to do so... It will be important that whoever takes on the role has not been involved in the detailed preparation of the prosecution case. They must be seen to be independent, focused purely on the child's welfare in preparing for a difficult experience. They must not discuss the details of the prosecution case or the evidence the child has given or is to give'.

The letter listed the 'ideal' competencies of persons performing this support and liaison role. They should:

The joint letter confirmed the need for training and suggested that local agencies, including the Crown Prosecution Service, should co-operate in providing basic training for anyone carrying out this role. In 1994, the NSPCC and Childline published a training and resource guide, 'Preparing child witnesses for court'. The guide, which was developed through inter-agency consultation, also contained recommended programmes for raising the awareness of practitioners and policy makers about child witnesses.

The pilot project

Since the launch of the Pack, no national resources have been allocated to child witness support. One of the difficulties in forecasting the need for child witness support is the lack of statistics about the number of child witnesses in the system:

'Despite official concern about the plight of child witnesses, no-one in authority seems to have thought about keeping any kind of record of the number of children who are called as witnesses in legal proceedings, let alone in what capacity they are called, or in what type of case'.10

Although certain categories of information about child witnesses are now collected by the Lord Chancellor's Department, these data are not published.

Specific child witness preparation initiatives have been developed in different parts of the country, for example by the NSPCC, local authorities and Area Child Protection Committees. In a number of Crown Court centres, the Witness Service has also made special provision for the support of child witnesses.11 Overall, provision of child witness support remains patchy and the content and scope of local schemes vary widely. In a 1995 Home Office study, 30 per cent of children received neither the Child Witness Pack nor a pre-trial visit to the court.12 A 1994 unpublished Witness Service survey suggested that the proportion of children not receiving preparation was even greater.

In 1994 Victim Support, the Witness Service parent body, decided to evaluate the effectiveness of arrangements for Witness Service volunteers to prepare children to give evidence at Crown Court. The project aimed to look at 20 cases involving a minimum of 30 children who received preparation for giving evidence. It was hoped that most of these would be dealt with by a Witness Service pilot scheme at one Crown Court centre (Court A). By the close of fieldwork, the Witness Service at Court A had provided information about the support of 14 young witnesses in eight cases. Case numbers were lower than anticipated, in part because of a four month delay in getting the pilot scheme underway. The provision of CCTV link equipment to additional courts in the circuit may also have meant fewer child witness cases being committed or transferred to Court A.

Although the anticipated total of cases was not reached at the pilot court, the project also collected information about Witness Service involvement in child witness cases at a neighbouring court (Court B) and two courts elsewhere in the country (Courts C and D). Courts A and B are metropolitan courts in the south; Court C is located in a county town serving a semi-rural area and Court D serves a large conurbation in the north.

Courts B, C and D were selected due to the experience of the Witness Service at these locations in supporting child witnesses prior to the project. Drawing on all four courts, information was received from a total of 55 cases involving 107 young witnesses. The study started in May 1995, and was planned to last one year. It actually ended in June 1996, having been extended for one month in order to include as many cases as possible.

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