Children in court - Part 1

Chapter four

The pilot project at Court A

This chapter describes the implementation of the Witness Service pilot project to provide child witness support at a Crown Court centre where new procedures were introduced.

Initial planning

Planning for the pilot project began early in 1994 when Victim Support 14 identified its Witness Service scheme at Court A as a potential pilot site. At that time volunteers provided support to parents on the day of trial but little direct support was given to child witnesses and volunteers did not accompany children into the CCTV link room.

A series of consultation and planning meetings were attended by the Witness Service, staff of Court A (including the chief clerk), Victim Support, three local social services departments, police child protection officers and the CPS. Victim Support put forward a paper to the local Area Child Protection Committees (ACPCs) proposing the development and evaluation of a Witness Service role in supporting child witnesses. 15 The paper acknowledged that the involvement of a Witness Service volunteer would not be appropriate in every case. The aim of the pilot project was not to replace support work where it was already undertaken by others but to widen the number of options available for the support of child witnesses. The referral criteria were to be negotiated with the police and social services and approved by the ACPCs.

The paper proposed that special training would be provided to volunteers with input from social services, the police and the CPS. The content of the training would be based on the 1994 NSPCC Training and Resource Guide. Support provided by the Witness Service would include:

Costs of the pilot project

Funding for the pilot scheme, including the cost of evaluating the project, was provided by the police, Victim Support and the three local authority members of the ACPC in the following proportions:

Police 31%
Victim Support (Home Office grant) 41%
ACPCs (3 local authorities) 28%
Expenditure over a 12 month period
Volunteer training £588
Volunteers' expenses £437
Child Witness Packs £289
Contingency £285
TOTAL £1599

Consultation with the judiciary

In the early stages, some judges at Court A expressed concern that volunteers might discuss the evidence with young witnesses. One took the view that child witness support should be the responsibility of social services rather than the Witness Service:

'My reservations about the proposals are not to be taken as rejection but rather as an indication of my concern for the way in which child witnesses are handled generally. In most cases there is a social worker already involved and it should be the responsibility of social services to provide support'.

This concern was fed back to inter-agency project meetings. Local social services departments commented that although they would have liked to provide an independent social worker (ie. someone not involved in the joint police investigation) to support child witnesses, realistically this was not possible in every case. Where an alleged abuser came from outside the family circle, social services seldom had any involvement. The departments acknowledged that there was no policy at a national level for social services to support child witnesses.

Before endorsing the pilot scheme, the judges at Court A requested that Victim Support seek the approval of the presiding judges for the circuit. In July 1994, Victim Support wrote to inform them about the project:

'We view the proposal at [Court A] to be a part of the natural extension of the Witness Service... and also an attempt to streamline arrangements for child witnesses. The proposal would add the Witness Service to a pool of possible supporters for the child. It may not be necessary to involve the Witness Service closely in every case if, for example, an existing carer is available and not required to give evidence. We feel it is important to establish good practice and procedures and would regard the pilot as a means of establishing a system that could be used in any part of England and Wales'.16

The letter proposed a number of safeguards:

The presiding judges advised Victim Support that the proposal would be discussed with the senior presiding judge for England and Wales. Approval was given at the end of November 1994.

During the months that followed, discussions took place to secure the necessary funding and materials were developed for administration of the project. These included the child witness project role description and research specification (agreed at a meeting in January 1995 attended, amongst others, by the chief clerk and child liaison officer18 at Court A), guidance on the conduct of home visits and instructions for recording notes in case they were used in court.

Selection and training

The selection of eight Witness Service volunteers to participate in the pilot project took place during April and May 1995. All had completed the normal one-week training for volunteers. The interview team consisted of a police child protection team officer, a social services representative and the Witness Service coordinator. At the final interview, volunteers were advised that they would be taking on a commitment beyond the normal duties of Witness Service volunteers. One dropped out prior to additional training and two resigned before the project started receiving referrals. One of those who resigned was a volunteer from an ethnic minority community.

Of the five volunteers remaining, all but one had at least six months experience with the Witness Service. Two were male. (In accordance with Victim Support policy, male volunteers were not assigned to female witnesses in cases involving sexual crime). Discussion had taken place during the planning phase about recruitment to reflect the court's ethnically mixed community.19 The referral form had been amended at the request of the local authorities to allow the recording of the child's preferred language. In the event, all five volunteers who took part in the pilot scheme at Court A were white.20

In May 1995, Victim Support resubmitted the aims and objectives of the pilot project together with the training programme to the judges of Court A. One judge responded that the aims and objectives:

'seem to cover all aspects of the matter and I have no comments to make. We have had good service from the Witness Service so far and I am sure that the newly trained child witness volunteers will do just as well'.

The scope of the scheme

In May, the resident judge responded to Victim Support that the training programme seemed 'highly commendable' but expressed a reservation about the pilot scheme's involvement with child witnesses as opposed to child victims:

'I am concerned to know how you propose to make contact in cases other than sexual ones in which the various authorities are concerned... I believe it would be wise to restrict your intervention at this stage to child victims and monitor your progress before extending the scope of your activities'.

Victim Support responded:

'With regard to our remit we intend to concentrate on cases involving the CCTV link which are more than likely to be the most serious. Indeed our referral arrangements with child protection officers and social services reflect this. Our wish to offer this extra support to all children using the CCTV link, be they victims or witnesses, is based on the assumption that they are equally deserving of our support... We are anxious that it might be seen as favouritism if only child victims have been given the opportunity of additional support and of using the Child Witness Pack, particularly if the witnesses are related or friends... In principle we do not see a problem with offering the same service in non CCTV link cases providing the referral arrangements are effective with, for example, the CID teams. We have not yet formally pursued this avenue. In the meantime, children and their families not involved in CCTV link cases would have the usual support from the Witness Service on the day. They would not have in-depth pre-trial preparation offered to other cases'.

Volunteers attended various training events in May and June 1995 (see chapter five below). Victim Support had originally intended that the pilot scheme would start in June, but delays were experienced in working out operational details and in obtaining the consent of the judges to go ahead with referrals.

In July, a problem arose concerning the scheduling of the child's pre-trial familiarisation visit to the court. It was unclear whether the volunteer assigned to deal with the child at trial would be able to attend as visits were being set up by the police and court staff without consulting the Witness Service coordinator. Visits were set up for 9 am or 1 pm which meant that children had to be taken out of school to participate.

Also in July, Victim Support asked the local CPS liaison for a decision on two matters:

The CPS decided22 that:

In August, responding to a query from the resident judge about the pilot project terms of reference, Victim Support confirmed that some local referrals from police child protection units would be made by inter-agency strategy meeting. Others would not be subject to this advance system and would be notified to the Witness Service coordinator in the normal way:

'These are likely to be child abuse cases where families live outside of the three local boroughs and other children who are victims or witnesses in a range of cases. These will be offered visits to the court before the case and/ or the same support on the day as the first group of children'.

At an August meeting attended by Victim Support and the Witness Service coordinator, the judges proposed that the question of whether a volunteer made a home visit to a child witness should be decided at a plea and directions hearing (PDH). This suggestion, which had not been raised before, had significant implications for the pilot project. Victim Support was concerned that requiring the home visit decision to be made at a PDH might set an undesirable precedent. In subsequent correspondence, it raised the following matters:

In response, the resident judge reaffirmed that the judges wished the arrangement for home visits by Witness Service volunteers to be considered at the PDH:

'This provides a safeguard for all concerned, and in any event you will not know until the plea and directions hearing the date of the trial, so that you would not be able to allocate a volunteer to the case before then'.

After further consultation, Victim Support decided not to offer home visits to child victims and witnesses as part of the pilot scheme. This was notified to the judges of Court A.

The start of the project

The pilot project started taking referrals as of 25 September 1995. Judges were informed that the work would involve:

One of the first cases ended when the prosecution offered no evidence. In another, a social worker was already involved so the Witness Service was not required. In October, pre-trial visits in early project cases were set up without reference to volunteers' availability.26 The Witness Service coordinator therefore planned a second pre-trial visit at which the Child Witness Pack could be used with the child, but one judge vetoed this, saying the child should only be brought to court once before the trial. In consequence, the coordinator spoke to the judge asking if the pre-trial visit could be arranged to accommodate the volunteer. This was agreed.

At a Victim Support-Witness Service project meeting in December, a number of issues were reported:

In January, the Witness Service coordinator briefed Court A's new resident judge about the project.29 At that meeting, another judge commented that he had not previously seen the Child Witness Pack and did not want it used. The temporary chief clerk explained that the Pack had been endorsed by the Lord Chancellor's Department. Later that month, Victim Support held a meeting with the resident judge and his predecessor. The resident judge was sent the relevant previous correspondence and undertakings concerning the pilot project. At this meeting, it was confirmed that the Witness Service would not undertake home visits but that second pre-trial visits to the court and post-court home visits were acceptable.

A separate meeting was held with the temporary chief clerk at which it was agreed that the Court Service and Witness Service would exchange task descriptions for Witness Service volunteers and for the child liaison officer. The Witness Service task description was based on previously agreed functions. After an exchange of drafts which were reviewed by the resident judge, Victim Support sent a final version of its documentation to the court in April. This covered the volunteer's role 30, a description of the referral mechanism and procedures31, the referral form and witness statements for trials and retrials to be completed by volunteers explaining what they had undertaken with the child and confirming that the evidence had not been discussed.

The description of the child liaison officer's responsibilities at Court A was based on the job description issued by the Lord Chancellor's Department and included:

The child liaison officer's package of materials also included a new description of familiarisation visits to the court by child witnesses and notes for 'companions'. As a result of an exchange of comments, an amended version of this package was provided by the court to the Witness Service just before the end of this study. Previously, the Witness Service did not accompany the child during any introduction to the judge and counsel and this created a break in the continuity of volunteer support. A change to involve the volunteer in this process was included in the amended version and was welcomed by the Witness Service.

As noted above, initially the Witness Service did not participate in the pre-trial visit conducted by court staff (usually the court's child liaison officer). Volunteers have benefitted, albeit in a passive role, from sharing the child's experience of being shown round the courtroom. However, they have observed that the content of the court tour varies depending who conducts it.33 The description of the familiarisation visit states that 'the child has the opportunity to speak through the CCTV link equipment' but does not provide further detail. Thus, when the CCTV link is demonstrated, there is not always someone sitting in the barristers' chairs and the child does not always have the chance to sit in the judge's chair and see the judge's second monitor (vital in ensuring that the child understands the judge can always see the child in the CCTV link room, even when the child cannot see the judge).

At the end of the study, volunteers at Court A generally spoke positively about their experience. In particular, they commended the efforts of their coordinator to support their work through planning, consultation, feedback and debriefing. Specific concerns raised by the volunteers are addressed elsewhere in this report.

Perceptions of criminal justice system participants

The project was discussed with a judge from Court A in November 1995. Unfortunately, the resident judge at Court A was away for several weeks at the end of the study and was unavailable for interview about the progress of the pilot project.

At the end of the fieldwork, a short questionnaire was to the small group of representatives of the police, social services, the Crown Prosecution Service and court staff who had taken part in planning the pilot project at Court A. They were invited to distribute the questionnaire to colleagues with experience of the scheme. The resident judge was asked to provide the questionnaire to other judges of the court who had presided in child witness cases since the project began. Ten replies were received: seven from police officers and one each from a CPS lawyer, a prosecution barrister and a judge. No responses were received from court staff, although questionnaires were addressed to four individuals and several follow up requests were made to senior staff members. For purposes of comparison, two judges and two members of staff from Court B also completed questionnaires about their Witness Service scheme.

Respondents were asked three questions about the effectiveness of the preparation provided by the Witness Service.

Has the involvement of a Witness Service volunteer helped child witnesses?

Two judges from Court A and Court B said this had helped 'a little'. All other respondents, including the second judge from Court B, felt that it helped 'a lot'.

Seven respondents described the major benefit of the pilot project at Court A as follows:

'The witnesses were very at ease with the volunteers and were kept informed of proceedings' (police officer)
'The witnesses have been enormously assisted by having someone independent specifically allocated to deal with their queries and offer moral support while they are at court. They have carried out this role in an exemplary fashion. I have not heard a single negative comment about them' (CPS lawyer)
'It took the pressure off everyone else ie. police, prosecution counsel and let them get on with their roles which they then performed more effectively' (police officer)
'By providing support to families and children where parents are also witnesses and therefore cannot remain with the children' (police officer)
'Support for child whilst waiting to give evidence and when giving evidence' (police officer)
'I have found that the witness services have been extremely helpful, not only to child witnesses but to their parent(s). They have met them on arrival at court and remained with them until leaving the court building' (police officer)
'A high quality service essential to the comfort and well being of the children involved which offers children and their parents the opportunity to present the evidence they are able to give with greater confidence' (police officer).

One of the judges at Court B described the major benefit as:

'The care of the child before giving evidence, the delivery of the child to the witness room or courtroom, the supervision of the child while giving evidence or waiting to give evidence in the witness room, the withdrawal of the child after giving evidence and the delivery of the child back to parents or other responsible adult after appearance, all went smoothly as far as I could tell. This was a great benefit to the court, court staff and the conduct of the trial'.

He continued:

'As far as I am aware there were no significant incidents or irregularities during the trials over which I presided during the period. Where problems arose, as they inevitably did, they were dealt with sensibly by the Witness Service volunteers under the supervision of and in cooperation with the court clerk, the ushers and other court staff. Such cooperation is, of course, vital to the success of the scheme'.

Have Witness Service volunteers appropriately conducted the preparation of child witnesses (ie. not rehearsed the child's evidence)?

All but one respondents from both courts said that the volunteers had conducted preparation appropriately. The exception was a judge from Court B who said he did not know.

Have Witness Service volunteers acted appropriately in the role of support person while the child gives evidence?

All respondents from both courts agreed that volunteers had acted appropriately in this capacity.

One police officer with experience of the Witness Service at Court A as well as other Crown Court centres provided comments by telephone. This officer praised the Witness Service and had no concerns about the pilot scheme's ability to preserve the integrity of children's evidence. However, the officer felt that tensions between Court A's Witness Service and the court staff constrained volunteers' ability to perform their function as effectively as possible. In the officer's view, volunteers felt under scrutiny from court staff and were afraid to 'put a foot wrong'. This sometimes resulted in what the officer perceived as unnecessary rigidity in the Witness Service response to children and their carers in comparison to Witness Service practice at other courts, particularly in relation to the segregation of children from their parents when one or other was still waiting to give evidence.


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