Children in court - Part 1

Chapter six

The views of young witnesses and their carers

This chapter draws on the responses to questionnaires from 33 young witnesses and 25 parent/ carers at Courts A and B. It also describes interviews with parents and children involved in four trials at Court A.

Responses of parents and carers of child witnesses

Forty-seven children attended Courts A or B. Questionnaires were returned by 25 of their parent/ carers. Five of these respondents had attended Court A and 20 had gone to Court B. Their children were aged between six and sixteen and just over half were boys. Twenty-three of the children gave evidence. There was no obvious relationship between the outcome of the case and whether a response was sent.

All respondents had met the Witness Service volunteer assigned to their child and 20 (80 per cent) said that the volunteer had helped answer their (the parent's) questions. All but two parent/ carers had received a copy of the Child Witness Pack booklet Your child is a witness. Two were told there were none available.40

Parents were asked about their children's feelings on being a witness.

Before meeting the Witness Service volunteer, how did your child feel about being a witness?
not worried at all 0
a little worried 13
very worried 12

Views were sought about the support provided to children by volunteers.

How much was your child helped by the Witness Service volunteer:
  a little a lot
answering the child's questions? 1 24
telling your child what to expect at court? 0 23
making your child feel more confident? 2 23

Twenty-two parents commented on what they thought was most helpful about the preparation the child received for court (some mentioned more than one factor).

What was the most helpful aspect of the preparation your child received?
being reassured and helped to relax 10
seeing court/ CCTV link before the day of trial 9
explanations of what happens at court 9

Parents commended help received from the police and NSPCC as well as from volunteers. When asked what was the most useful aspect of the assistance provided by Witness Service volunteers, parents replied:

'Giving a booklet to my daughter to read, also showing her a courtroom and explaining where everyone sat'
'I found that it was very helpful for my daughter to attend the court before the date of the case and to be shown what she had to do and what happens'
'They helped him to relax and took his mind off things'
'Showing him around the court before he went in and explaining what would happen and just being there all the time'
'L was looked after very well and felt relaxed. All her questions were answered'.

Eleven parents (44 per cent) added positive comments about the quality of support received from the Witness Service by their children or themselves, for example:

'I feel that everything that was done for the preparation was very good and I don't think that there was anything else the ladies could do. My daughter was very happy'
'The support and care given was very good, giving confidence to my daughters'
'I feel that my daughter and myself had all the support from the witness volunteers that they possibly could have given. All I can say is well done ladies and I hope you keep up the good work with the children. Thank you.'
'I think the support was needed and got; it gave us all the strength to get through the case'.

Eight (32 per cent) thought that the child's preparation could have been improved in some respect, for example:

'The only support was provided by police officers'
'They should spend more time to prepare the parent and child in future'
'I think they should improve on informing the witness on how much they are going to be tormented'.

Their comments identified a range of ways in which preparation could have been improved (some identified more than one).

How could the preparation/ support your child received have been improved?
by providing more information 4
by spending more time with the parent and child 3
by improved facilities to keep children occupied (TV, video, computer) 3
by a pre-trial visit 2
by having an opportunity to practise on the CCTV link ahead of time 2

Allowing child witnesses to practise on the CCTV link before the day of trial is not the responsibility of the Witness Service. The court's child liaison officer should liaise with the CPS to make arrangements for child witnesses to have a demonstration of the equipment prior to the trial. Nevertheless, a 1995 Home Office report 41 found that approximately 75 per cent of all children at CCTV link trials did not have the opportunity to practise on the link ahead of the trial. Actual use is essential for children to feel comfortable with the equipment. Being shown equipment which is not turned on, or having to rely on an illustration in the Child Witness Pack, is not good enough. A demonstration of both ends of the CCTV link has at least two practical benefits: the child can be reassured that the judge can always see him or her, even if the child cannot see the judge; and the child can voice an informed preference about how to give evidence.42

Fourteen parents expressed a view about how their child was dealt with by the court process. Eight were satisfied, for example:

'I have asked my daughter how she felt and she has said that the people in the court made her feel comfortable'
'I think most things were done to make her feel secure and confident'
'The judge was very understanding and kind'
'Initially the court didn't realise my daughter was 14 years old but once they knew they did everything they could to help her about the proceedings'
'L is happy about the way she was dealt with, in fact it was a good learning exercise'.

The remaining six expressed dissatisfaction, for example:

'It can be a long wait for a child'
'She should have had the witness helper in court with her'
'This is the first time my children have been to court and they were very frightened'
'Probably a little harsh'
'I am totally disgusted at the way my son was dealt with by the court. He was left all day before he could give his evidence. By this time he was tired and did not understand the questions that were put to him. I would like him to do it again if need be. He said he was not allowed to tell the truth. They cross-examined him as if he was an adult instead of a six year-old child. He [the defence barrister] said things like 'he did and then he didn't' and this confused him'.

Parents were asked whether their children were angry, relieved or distressed after the case ended. They could choose more than one category though none did so.

How did your child feel after the case ended?
angry 0
relieved 16
distressed 8

Responses to the children's questionnaires

Responses were received from 33 of the 47 young witnesses who attended Courts A and B (a response rate of 70 per cent). Six responses were received from Court A and 27 from Court B.

Thirty children commented on the extent to which Witness Service volunteers answered their questions about court. Twenty-four (80 per cent) said that all their questions had been answered compared with six who felt that only some of their questions were answered. Thirty-two responded to a question about how much they were told. Twenty-seven (84 per cent) said they were told 'a lot' about what would happen at court compared with five who felt they were told 'a little'.

Twenty-one children described how they felt about being a witness. Five (24 per cent of those commenting) were positive, including three for whom the trial in which they were involved ended in acquittal. Comments included:

'I felt calm and confident and was answering the questions to my knowledge'
'I felt glad I was going to court because at last I knew that the situation I was in would be dealt with'
'Very pleased to be a witness'.
In contrast, 13 children (62 per cent) described themselves as 'scared', 'frightened', 'nervous', 'afraid' or 'worried' about giving evidence, for example:
'I was nervous and worried that I would say something wrong or stupid'
'I felt nervous and afraid'
'I was very frightened'
'I felt that I wished that I was not a witness and this never happened and I did not want to go to court'.

Questionnaires were received from a parent/ carer of seven of these 'nervous' children of whom only three described their child as 'very worried' before the trial. Volunteers involved with these children were asked about the effect on the child of giving evidence. Anxiety was cited as a factor in relation to only one child who was described by the volunteer as 'very nervous'.

Three children had felt worried but went on to say that the experience was not as bad as they had feared:

'At first I was OK about being a witness but when I was in the court I had butterflies in my stomach and my heart was beating very fast but then I got over it'
'I felt scared about being a witness but in the end it wasn't bad'
'At first I was very nervous but when I got telling my story I was calm and when they asked me a lot of questions I answered as clear and calm as possible so they understood. I guess it was OK'.

The questionnaires asked about children's recollections of the advice provided by the Witness Service volunteer. 27 children responded to this question. Advice about people in the courtroom, in particular the defendant, was mentioned by 15 children (56 per cent):43

'Don't look at him'
'Just look at the jury'
'Try not to look at the person who did the thing to you'
'That I could not see the defendant on the screen and that it's only a CCTV screen and no one can hurt me'
'Who could be in the court and where they would be'
'That I would not see Bill'.
Some of these replies suggested that the children did not appreciate that the defendant could see them on the CCTV link, for example:
'The room where you have to go to give your evidence and about the CCTV and that no-one can see me only the people that talk to me and I can only see them'.
Fourteen children (52 per cent) remembered advice 'not to be worried' or 'not to be frightened' which reassured them and bolstered their confidence, for example:
'No matter what happens be brave and calm'
'To take my time and talk and to relax'
'Don't yell out in court no matter how scared you get'
'Be brave - don't be nervous'
'To make yourself clear and to understand the questions clearly and to answer strongly. Don't be frightened, be strong, stand up for yourself'
'Never be scared to speak and tell the truth. Don't let the barrister make you get confused with what you say and never make people think you are a liar'.

Six (22 per cent) recalled advice about telling the truth, for example:

'Tell the truth and everything would be OK'
'Don't tell lies'
'What a lie is and what the truth is'
'That you have to speak clear and loud to make sure that the judge and jury know you're telling the truth'.

Information singled out as helpful by other children included:

'About the video. Helped a lot'
'The statement that they showed me'
'To tell the judge if I didn't understand the question to ask them to repeat it in a different way. He also told me to say that if there was a question that I didn't agree with then to say it'.

21 young witnesses offered advice to others. All of the comments were positive in tone and those that were frequently repeated included telling the truth, not looking at the defendant, speaking up, remembering that the child witness had not done anything wrong, trying not to worry and sticking up for yourself. Examples included:

'There are lots of people at the court to help you'
'Don't worry you will be alright and don't lie'
'Don't worry and talk loud'
'Stand up for yourself and don't be bullied by the questions. If you tell the truth you can't go wrong'
'Listen and you will not have anything to worry about as you haven't done anything wrong'
'Make sure that when you speak you don't fluff. Always put a straight face even if the defendant is trying to confuse you. And if you want to cry just do so. Don't be scared to show your emotions'.
'Be strong, don't back down'
'Always keep your head up high and don't make no-one put you down and always stand up for your rights'
'Be calm, tell the truth and stick to your guns. Don't let the judge or barristers push you around. Say how you feel. You might be nervous at first but you will get over it and you'll be OK'.

Interviews

Interviews were conducted with parents in relation to six children who gave evidence in four trials at Court A. All cases involved sexual offences and three of the four trials resulted in convictions. Some of the parents focused more on their own experience; all agreed that they would let their child give evidence again.

Child A

A's mother described him as having a mental age of seven. A was assaulted at home by someone known to him. Since then he had felt unsafe in the house and often tried to climb out of his bedroom window on the ground floor. His mother said his three brothers are also 'petrified'. Since the offences occurred, his mother acknowledged being over-protective about him and she had been prescribed anti-depressants as a result of stress. She had been plagued by feelings of guilt:

'Was I aware it was happening, could I have stopped it? I had all these guilt trips but there was no-one there to help me, not even a self-help group for parents, though I wanted help from someone trained'.

The GP had provided moral support but she fell outside the category for receiving social services' help as the abuse occurred outside the family. She wanted her son to receive counselling but apparently he could only be referred to child and family guidance through social services. She described the feeling of isolation she experienced during the eight months of waiting for the case to come to trial:

'It seemed like eternity to us, no-one contacted us, we were left on our own'.

Child A found the pre-trial visit helpful and he had lots of good questions about the child witness booklet, such as 'Why doesn't the court in the picture look like this one?' He was worried about answering questions. His mother told him that if he could answer the question, he should try to do so, and not say 'I don't remember' just as an excuse. His mother was shown the parents' booklet but did not receive her own copy because of a temporary shortage. She was pleased with the support provided by the Witness Service. Given the circumstances of the offence, she would have preferred to have been given a choice of gender for the volunteer to accompany A although this was no reflection on the volunteer himself.

On the day of trial, A and his mother came to court at 9.30 am. At 11.45 am they were told to go away and come back at 1.45 pm:

'The Witness Service took us to McDonald's. I didn't have any money as I hadn't planned this. The court starts at 10 am so I thought we'd be done at lunchtime. In fact he wasn't finished until 4 pm'.

When they came back to the court building after lunch, they waited in a room at the rear of the ground floor. Through the window they could see the defendant being brought in but the volunteers quickly closed the blinds. A's mother said they felt vulnerable in this room.

The judge was introduced to A, which A liked. He saw his videotaped interview for the first time when the jury did. A's mother wondered whether he would be able to concentrate (it lasted 45 minutes) but the volunteer accompanying him told her later that A watched it all. A gave evidence over the CCTV link. As his mother was still to give evidence the following day, she was warned not to talk to him about his testimony. When she gave evidence, she was upset that she was 'pushed' by prosecution counsel to state her address out loud because her address was given on her statement as care of the police.

This mother wanted to communicate to those at court her feelings of powerlessness about being the parent of a child witness:

'When your child is at court, parental responsibility is taken away from you - for that time, your child belongs to someone else. When you hand over your child, everything is kept from you. You have a fear all the way through court that 'it' could happen again. When your child is walking away from you, it all comes flooding back. I had no control over what was happening to him, I couldn't go to him and reassure him. You can do nothing except sit and wait. It is the hardest thing for a parent to cope with. It kills you'.

A's mother returned to court for the verdict. Although she had not told the Witness Service she would attend, they accompanied her into court which was very helpful. This case ended in a conviction.

Child B

This eleven year old girl was a bystander witness to a sexual assault on her best friend C. The offence had happened about 11 months ago. B's parents did not accompany her on the pre-trial visit but on the day of trial they felt that 'she knew more than they did' and she did not seem nervous. They were very pleased with the assistance of the Witness Service. B did not understand why she could not talk to the volunteer about what had happened to her.

B was shown her statement by the police officer on the day of trial. She was not called until the afternoon and was glad they had a pack of cards to play with. Her friend C gave evidence first and was in tears when she was brought out of court as B was brought in. B found this very upsetting as she did not know why C was crying and could not speak to her.

B gave evidence behind a screen with the Witness Service volunteer sitting behind her. (She and her parents said they were not offered the CCTV link; there was no videotaped interview.) B thought she was in the witness box for about 45 minutes and had no difficulty with the lawyers' questions but said: 'I don't know what I'd have done if I had'. In describing to the researcher what happened at court, B said 'It was OK' but sat with all the sofa cushions piled up over her and put her thumb in her mouth. After some time, she volunteered to fetch her diary. The entry for the pre-trial visit described the court as 'massive'. On the day of trial, her diary said:

'It was horrid and they called me a liar. I arrived at 11 and didn't get called until after C. I saw C crying as I went in'.

This case ended in a conviction.

Child C

C was the victim of the offence witnessed by B, above. C's mother did not go with her on the pre-trial visit but thought that the way the girls were handled by the Witness Service at the trial was 'wonderful'. She thought that the Service needed better-equipped facilities for children, for example, a TV, video and video games, as she and C were there from early morning to late afternoon. C said:

'It was boring to wait and it was a good job I took my pack of cards. Tell other children to bring something to do'.

C refused to go to school for a week after the assault. C's mother did not let her know the trial date was coming up but said that she sat C and her friend B down a few days before the trial 'just to see what they could remember'.

C felt 'terrified' about court and about seeing the defendant. Her mother did not want her to give evidence over the CCTV link but told the police that C would not give evidence unless she had screens. When she went into the witness box, she had to take the oath which she had not expected. As she was 11, she had been told she would be warned to tell the truth. She was allowed to write down her address. About cross-examination, C said:

'They fired questions at me - I had to 'butt in' because I was not finished. Tell other children to take your time when being questioned. The child witness booklet helped because it made me less nervous - it said I could ask him to repeat questions. The judge asked if I was OK - that helped'.

C's mother was upset that the judge released the defendant from court while B and C were still in the building; he followed B out. She was also aware of people observing in the public gallery and thought that children's cases should not be open to the public.

Although C and her friend B gave evidence on the first day of trial, C's mother, who was also a witness, was not reached until the second day. C's mother felt that they should have tried to take her evidence on the same day as C. At the end of the first day, a decision was reached at court (it was not clear by whom) that C should not go home with her mother. There had been no prior warning about this but fortunately C was able to stay overnight with B. C said:

'It would have been nice if I could have spoken to mum afterwards. It would have been good if mum could have given evidence first and I could have supported her though we did talk when I came home'.

When C was out of the room, her mother said that C had tried to talk about the case since the trial ended but 'I was abrupt and said no it's no big deal, shut up'. As noted in relation to child B, this case ended in a conviction.

Young witnesses D and E

D, a girl of 13, was the victim of a sexual assault by a male relative. Her 15 year old brother E and her mother were also called as witnesses. E took part in the interview with his mother and step-father.

D made two pre-court visits, one on her own and the second time with her brother. D's mother was told about the possibility of an application being made for the CCTV link but they were advised by the police that D's evidence would carry more weight if she gave evidence in court.44

However, the family were not sure until the day of trial that screens would be allowed. Her mother concluded that knowing this even a few days ahead of time would have greatly helped D.

E said that he had not had particular difficulties about giving evidence but had been concerned for his sister. D's mother said that D had suffered from sleeplessness before the trial and had found rifts created within the family to have been highly stressful. She said that D was not allowed to receive therapy before the trial.45 It was suggested that D 'would not want to lose on a technicality'. While her parents were willing to go along with this, it was a worry and her mother feared that D will need counselling in future, particularly concerning sexual relationships.

The family felt that they had too long to wait at court as they were there all day with D and E. Their mother said she knew she would not be allowed to be with D and therefore said to the volunteer 'Don't tell me if she's upset'. Their mother was not called to give evidence until the second day. She said she took the admonition seriously not to talk about the evidence both before the trial and overnight before her own evidence. In retrospect, she wished she had known the details of D's statement as she could have backed up D's evidence on one issue of timing.

The family were very pleased with the assistance from the Witness Service. The stepfather said if it had not been for the volunteer he would have 'blown the case' by hitting the defendant. They were also grateful that a security escort took them upstairs as the defendant's family was outside the courtroom and they would not have known they were there. It was also helpful that the prosecution barrister explained what was happening when the jury went out.

This family asked for support some months in advance of the trial which, due to its terms of reference, Court A's Witness Service could not undertake.46 The police therefore referred the family to the local community Victim Support scheme which provided the assistance requested. In this instance, the parents detected some tension at court between Victim Support and the Witness Service.

The parents and E sat in court throughout the prosecution and defence closing speeches and the judge's summing up. They had not realised just how difficult this would be and said it was 'very hard to hear'. However, they would still have done it.

Child F

F was a boy aged six who was allegedly assaulted by his father. His mother was advised to bring him to court at 9.15 am so that he would not be seen by other members of the family.

F's mother said the Witness Service was 'absolutely brilliant'. She got on well with the volunteer assigned to her and F 'got on great' with his volunteer.

The morning was taken up by legal arguments and what she later found out to be negotiations about the plea. The defendant offered a plea of guilty to one count but this was not accepted by the prosecution. F was not shown his 50 minute videotaped interview until 3 pm at which point he stared around and did not watch the screen.

He could not concentrate and was very tired. He gave evidence over the CCTV link and was anxious because he knew his father was in court although he could not see him. After a short cross-examination F said he could not remember what he had said in the video.47 When court ended for the day, the Witness Service arranged for F to stay the night with his grandma (in this case the arrangements were apparently not prompted by the police or CPS). F's mother later found out that following F's evidence, the prosecution had concluded that the case could not proceed. In fact the prosecution did not withdraw the case until 2.45 pm the following day, after F's mother had waited at court to give evidence since 9.30 am. At that point, the Witness Service asked the prosecution barrister to come and explain to F's mother what had happened.48

F's mother is being treated by her GP for stress. She said she was 'disgusted' by the process. She thought that no child of F's age should be expected to wait around all day and give evidence in the late afternoon. She did not think that anyone had said anything to the judge and lawyers about how tired he was and that he was unfit to give evidence. She had also heard that F was asked questions by the defence barrister about the defendant such as 'He didn't do that, did he?' and 'It never happened, did it?'. Although F did not understand, the judge apparently did not intervene.

Since the court case, F has been wetting the bed and has had trouble sleeping. He told his mother that he could not understand the questions and has asked her 'why they wouldn't let me tell the truth'.49 F received pre-trial therapy but the police had advised his mother that he should not talk about what happened to him in case it altered his evidence. Apparently the defence barrister asked about his therapy at court and the prosecution counsel said 'If I had known he was in counselling I could have dealt with it'.

Findings

The project received responses from 25 parent/ carers in cases at courts A and B.

Responses were received from a total of 33 child witnesses, though the numbers responding to individual questions varied. Numbers of responses below are expressed as a percentage of those commenting.

Interviews were conducted with the parents of six young witnesses and with three young witnesses themselves.

Matters of concern raised by interviewees included:











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