Children in court - Part 1
This chapter describes the conduct of the evaluation. Despite budget constraints, it was possible to employ a range of strategies. These included:
- an assessment of Witness Service volunteer training
- meetings with the Witness Service
- requesting feedback from volunteers about individual child witnesses
- obtaining the views of child witnesses and their carers, including a small number of personal interviews
- testing the perceptions of a small group of criminal justice system participants.
Anonymity was guaranteed to all those participating in the evaluation.
Training of Witness Service volunteers
Members of the research team attended the following:
- a planning meeting to discuss training for volunteers from Courts A and B
- a two day multi-agency child protection course attended by volunteers
- a two day course on supporting child witnesses aimed specifically at volunteers
- a feedback meeting following the training programme.
A report evaluating the training programme was presented to Victim Support in July 1995.
Meetings with the Witness Service
Meetings were held with Witness Service volunteers at Courts A and B early in the project and again at the end of the fieldwork. The project was also discussed with the Witness Service coordinators at both courts at a series of meetings convened by Victim Support.
Feedback from volunteers about individual child witnesses
Witness Service volunteers at four Crown Court centres were asked to complete a questionnaire at the close of their involvement with a young witness, irrespective of whether the child had given evidence. The questionnaire dealt with the length of volunteer involvement, the scope of preparation, communication of information about the child to the police, prosecution and court, accompanying child witnesses while they gave evidence and post-court contact. Responses were received describing the preparation of 107 witnesses in 55 cases.
|Number of volunteer responses|
|Court A||14 (13%)|
|Court B||33 (31%)|
|Court C||21 (20%)|
|Court D||39 (36%)|
Child and young witnesses and their parent/ carers
Additional information was sought concerning child witnesses at Courts A and B. Three colour-coded questionnaires were prepared:
- for the parent or carer accompanying the child to court
- for children of nine or ten upwards
- for children of five to nine, illustrated with characters from the Child Witness Pack.
In practice, the choice of children's questionnaire was not related to the age of the child. The numbers of questionnaires returned by parents and children were as follows:
|Numbers of responses from children and family members|
With the exception of one questionnaire in which the respondent's gender was not provided, replies were returned in equal number by boys and girls.
Concern was expressed at project planning meetings that children might be encouraged to provide positive feedback on the questionnaire if they were helped by the volunteer to complete it. All questionnaires were therefore supplied with a FREEPOST address for their return to the researchers. At Court B, where response rates were initially poor, volunteers asked children and parents to return forms to the Witness Service before they were sent on to the researchers. In a few of these cases, the volunteer either wrote down what the child dictated or added a note explaining what the child meant.
The project aimed to conduct interviews with up to ten child witnesses and their families who had attended Courts A or B. In December 1995, where volunteers thought such contact might be appropriate, they handed parents a letter entitled, 'Will you help us to improve our services?' which invited families to contact the researchers directly. No project cases resulted in trials at Court A in January or February, and this letter produced no response. After consultation with the Witness Service coordinators, a different strategy was adopted in March 1996. The coordinators approached certain parents with the offer that the researchers would contact them after the completion of the case unless the parents declined.
The revised approach resulted in interviews with parents of six children who gave evidence in four trials at Court A. One of the four trials resulted in an acquittal; all involved sexual offences. Four mothers and a step-father were seen in person and one mother was interviewed by telephone. Three of the young witnesses were girls, two aged 11 and one aged 13; the boys were aged six, 14 and 15. Both 11 year old girls and the 15 year old boy agreed to speak to the researcher. One of these girls and the boy were bystander witnesses. Questions were asked about support from the Witness Service but otherwise interviews were relatively unstructured. Interviewees were able to comment on those aspects of their experience at court which they felt were most significant.
Perceptions of criminal justice system participants
At the end of the field work, a short questionnaire was to a small group of individuals familiar with the pilot project at Court A. Responses were received from seven police officers and one each from a Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) lawyer, a prosecution barrister and a judge. For purposes of comparison, two judges and two members of staff from Court B also completed questionnaires.