Children in court - Part 1

Chapter seven

The views of Witness Service volunteers

This chapter draws on 107 responses provided by volunteers to questionnaires about individual child witness cases at four Crown Court centres. Information was also derived from meetings with Witness Service volunteers at two Crown Court centres.

The length of volunteer involvement

How long before the trial did the volunteer become involved with the child witness?
On the day of trial 32 (30%)
Less than 2 weeks 28 (26%)
2 to 4 weeks 15 (14%)
1 to 3 months 12 (11%)
More than 3 months 18 (17%)

Volunteers saw child witnesses between one and four times with an average of two contacts. The total time spent with the child ranged from less than an hour to 14 hours with an average of six hours. Not all of this time was spent in preparing the child to give evidence: waiting with children50 and accompanying them while giving evidence51 accounted for much of it.

At Court A, the offer of pre-trial home visits (which formed part of the initial plan for the pilot project) was withdrawn due to judicial opposition. Pre-trial court visits generally took place the week before the trial. Volunteers' sessions to explain the appropriate Pack booklet to the child lasted between 20 to 60 minutes and took place after the tour of the courtroom. Although volunteers were generally satisfied that they had enough time, one commented:

'It can be quite tricky to get it all done. It is okay with an outgoing child but it can be hard to be sure you're communicating if the child is very reticent'.

The overall duration of the pre-trial visit was sometimes constrained by the time available to the person who had brought the child to court. A second pre-trial visit to the court, although part of the procedure agreed at Court A in March 1996, was not taken up by young witnesses or their carers.52 Some ground could be made up in preparing the child during the waiting time on the day of trial, for example:

'In the event, the enforced delay to the start of the trial served to increase the child's confidence in our relationship and allowed him to give his evidence well'.

However, volunteers agreed that it was important that the child's waiting time at court on the day of trial be kept to a minimum and that effective preparation should be completed ahead of time.

Methods used by volunteers in preparing child witnesses to give evidence

Volunteers were asked how they familiarised young witnesses with the court process, including use of the Child Witness Pack booklets 'Let's get ready for court' (for younger children) and 'Tell me more about court.' The range of activities on offer at the four courts varied. Only Courts C and D offered a home visit to children prior to the trial. Courts A and D had resources enabling them to provide copies of the Child Witness Pack.

The experience of volunteers at Court A demonstrated that the child's age alone was not enough to indicate which of the two children's booklets would be appropriate. In one case, it emerged at the pre-trial visit to the court that the 16 year old witness had learning difficulties. The Witness Service had not previously been advised of this53 and only the older child's booklet was available. Since then, volunteers at Court A have been equipped with both booklets.

Methods used by volunteers in preparing children for court
Used 'Let's get ready for court' 15 (14%)
Used 'Tell me more about court' 53 (50%)
Accompanied child on pre-trial court visit 67 (63%)
Helped child practise on CCTV link on pre-court visit 20 (19%)
Played question & answer games to help with cross-examination 23 (22%)
Visited child at home before trial 19 (18%)

The effectiveness of preparation

Volunteers' views of the effectiveness of preparation
Felt able to answer all of the child's questions 100 (94%)
Felt that preparation made the child feel more confident 92 (86%)
Felt that preparation was adequate for what the child actually experienced 75 (70%)

On completing each case, volunteers were asked to state how they felt about their involvement. Comments were supplied in relation to 64 children. In 47 of these cases (73 per cent of those who commented) volunteers felt they had done a good job, for example:

'E was very upset. By listening and talking to her a link was made and she calmed down to give her evidence. I felt I was supportive to her and I was very pleased when she thanked me for all my help'
'The boy was delightful and it was good to have a part in keeping the giving of evidence as trauma-free as possible'
'As always, a joy to see that someone in need received help. This case was no exception'.

In 17 cases (36 per cent of comments received), volunteers' spoke of the frustration, disappointment, feelings of inadequacy and even distress which may be associated with the task of preparation, for example:

'At the time I was very relieved it was all over and that everything had gone well. Now 48 hours later the trial had to be halted through no fault of hers and she will have to go through it again. Very frustrating all round and a great shame for her'
'Frustrated! But pleasantly surprised by the boy and his coping mechanism'
'Very sad. I had to go to away and was not here when the trial started. I personally felt that I let her down'
'The defendant was found not guilty. The social worker drew the short straw and had to tell them. The verdict was so astonishing even for us that everyone (including me) was very upset at the consequences'
'I wish we had more access to parents and children to be able to support them better' (in a case in which the NSPCC was also supporting the child)
'I felt as if I was working with one hand tied behind my back because so many other people were involved'
'I felt that I did all I could to prepare the child for giving evidence but I felt very frustrated as the day went on due to the many delays for the trial to start. The 'system' failed this child'
'The moral is that we (the Witness Service) can only go so far and we are not omnipotent. (I tend to feel we are!). De-briefing is essential'
'Showing the child the empty court and going through procedures is most helpful, but there is no way that one can prepare a child for defence questioning'
'I was nervous and apprehensive about going into the witness box. I thought if I felt nervous, how was she coping?'
'The supporter has to collude with the child's isolation'.

Offers of support after the case was completed

Post-trial contact was offered at all courts offered but the degree to which home visits were made differed.

Post-trial support offered by volunteers
Offered a post-trial home visit 25 (23%)
Offer of a home visit accepted 19 (18%)

One volunteer commented as follows about a post-trial home visit which had been unavoidably delayed for several weeks:

`The young witness never regretted giving evidence but admitted to shedding a few tears during the judge's summing up when he heard all the evidence and again when the defendant was sentenced. He had experienced some bullying at school by a friend of the defendant's son who happened to be in the same class but this was resolved and there have been no problems since. Worthwhile, but an earlier home visit would have been more beneficial as the boy had already started getting on with his life. Future visits, whenever possible, should be within seven days of the verdict'.

Support for the child's parent or carer

Volunteers' support for the child's parent/ carer
Supported the child's parent/ carer 96 (90%)
Provided 'Your child is a witness' to the parent/ carer 61 (57%)

North American research suggests that children who are supported by a parent are more effective witnesses. In cases within families, painful situations may arise because of divided loyalties or through children being disbelieved by at least some family members. Even supportive adults may feel unable to help their children because of a lack of understanding of the legal process. The letter issued jointly by government departments which accompanied the Child Witness Pack acknowledged that:

'Providing practical information and advice to carers is an integral part of supporting child witnesses... it is important to be aware of how those close to the child are coping with stress'.

At Court A, parents did not invariably accompany children on the pre-trial court visit but those who did spent time with the coordinator while the volunteer was left alone with the child to go through the appropriate Pack booklet. Parents were given a copy of 'Your child is a witness' and could ask the coordinator questions but they did not hear what the child was told. The Witness Service had a dilemma about separating the parent and child at this stage. Dealing with parents' anxieties was important, but excluding them from the preparation process might 'push up their anxiety and leave them high and dry without a role'. At the close of field work, volunteers were examining alternative strategies to address parents' concerns and considering whether to give the parent and child the option of staying together during the explanation of the Child Witness Pack on the pre-trial visit.54

As reflected in the previous chapter, most parents felt that volunteers had addressed their concerns. The Witness Service is aware that supporting parents can be time-consuming and may divert attention away from the child. In the pilot scheme at Court A, separate volunteers are assigned to the child and parent. Parents' anxieties were mentioned by a number of volunteers, for example:

'The result was a guilty plea. The reality was that the defendant was 75 and was never getting a custodial sentence and they [the parents] were very angry. There are many issues around for the parents in failure to protect and for the girls in 'grooming' and accepting money'
'His mother was anxious and needed reassurance'
'This child was the 'youngest' in terms of size and development but conducted himself equally well as the two other boys. His mother needed careful support as she demonstrated a fair degree of anxiety on his behalf'
'He was fine at the end, away from his mother who demanded more support than the son'.

Some comments reflected the frustration felt by volunteers when parents were seen as responding inappropriately or as impeding the volunteer's efforts:

'After giving evidence the boy waited for his mother to come up from court. She looked at him and gave the impression that he had let them down. He caught this and was devastated. There was nothing we could do or say to ease his pain. The lesson is to virtually insist that mum is a) not in court, b) is there when the child finishes, c) gives a cuddle, and of course we cannot insist on any of this'
'My role was hampered and my help negated by the father whose manner was negative, firstly by making a joke of the court familiarisation and secondly by berating the victim (16 years) for not answering properly and further confusing him'
'The father was very self-centred and tried to chat me up. I feel not enough attention was paid to the girl. Two people at a pre-trial visit is now our normal procedure'
'R arrived with four or five family supporters, including mother who was a witness. The child was particularly uncommunicative except when, for a short time, I had her on her own. I felt she was overwhelmed by too much family support'
'This boy has been in and out of care as his mother can't cope. She is the problem'.

Volunteers had concerns about the involvement at court of others, whether they be family supporters or external organisations. These are dealt with in the following section.

Liaison with others in the criminal justice system

Part of the child witness supporter's role is to convey information about the child's needs at court to the police, CPS and court staff.55 42 volunteers (39 per cent) reported that they had passed on such information. Of these volunteers, 31 (74 per cent of the 42) felt that the communication 'made a difference'. Some volunteers did not specify what information they passed on. Where the nature of the information was indicated, certain common themes emerged. Seven communications emphasised the child's age, welfare and ability to cope, for example:

'Told the judge the child was fit to continue'
'Her inability to concentrate'
'Short attention span, hyperactivity'.

Young witnesses, like adults, are entitled to refresh their memory before testifying by reading or having read to them their statement.56 Four volunteers communicated with the police concerning the child's statement:

'The child needed her statement'
'She did not fully understand the typed version of her statement'
'To read his statement before giving evidence'
'The child wanted to alter statement'.

Other communications with the police, court and CPS concerned the possibility of the child giving evidence with the use of CCTV link or screens, the need for an interpreter, the need for overnight accommodation because the parent, who was a witness, had not yet testified and the fact that a child with learning difficulties did not want the judge or lawyers to wear wigs.

When communicating information about how the child should give evidence, volunteers had to be careful to ascertain the child's wishes:

'This case was listed without a prior warning that children were involved. I think that the children preferred to be treated as adults. When the judge asked the prosecution barrister to seek the recommendation of the Witness Service regarding the use of the CCTV link, I suggested that the 14 year old girl give evidence from the CCTV link room. Then she overruled my suggestion. Both wanted to give evidence from the witness box. They got their way and proved their point'.

The roles of those to whom the information was communicated were as follows (percentages are of the 42 who communicated information; some did so to more than one person):

Roles of those to whom volunteers communicated information about the child
Police 32 (76%)
Court personnel57 24 (57%)
CPS 23 (55%)

Volunteers in 13 cases (12 per cent) experienced difficulties in supporting the child because of problems in coordinating with the police, social services or other organisations external to the court including the NSPCC and, in one case, a local Victim Support scheme. Nine of these cases were dealt with by police officers who were unfamiliar with child witness procedures and seemed unable to give families appropriate information. CID officers in particular often failed to bring children to court for a pre-trial visit, for example:

`We contacted the police three weeks before trial to no avail. Parents were phoning asking for information and pre-court visits. We then spoke to CPS who eventually got through to the CID and pre-trial visits were arranged two days before the trial date'.

Examples concerning other organisations included:

'The social workers appeared not to be familiar with the rules of court procedure. A lot of problems followed from this. The child felt too much under pressure. She threatened to have nothing to do with giving evidence. She refused to turn up the following day'
'Because of events outside court and Witness Service control there was interest and support from other agencies. I felt there were too many people involved with the child and their presence was not needed on the day of trial. They were not totally familiar with court procedure and at times asked questions not relevant to the case, sometimes in front of the child'
'Sometimes I wonder if non-court practitioners, ie. social workers, are the best to deal with these cases. They are so involved'
'The social worker may say they know court work but they don't know this court. If too many people are involved, the Witness Service is not able to work effectively. They [the witnesses] do not need an entourage'.

Problems of liaison were also identified in relation to court scheduling (the effect of delay on the child is dealt with later in this chapter). Volunteers at Court A always made themselves available for two or three days around the date scheduled for the child's testimony because it was recognised that arrangements might change or the child might have to return to court for a second day. At another court in the study, volunteers criticised the practice of listing two CCTV link trials on the same day even though the court had only one equipped courtroom:

'Both trials were a year old and more. This trial had to wait (so did the kids!) for two days to start'
Our listing officer for the third time in two months listed two CCTV trials together - same time and place in a court with one CCTV system! This kid had to wait and was separated from family who were taken out of order. What a system we work in!'.

Volunteers who accompanied the child while giving evidence

Across the country, the practice of individual courts and judges varies in determining who may accompany the child while giving evidence. Two of the four courts in the study permitted volunteers to accompany children in the CCTV link room. This accounted for 36 of the 83 children (43 per cent) who gave evidence. When looked at across the four courts by the age of the children concerned, an inconsistent picture emerges. For those children aged 11 and under, ten were accompanied by a volunteer while 12 were not. Between the ages of 12 and 16, 25 young witnesses were accompanied and 29 were not. Thus seven 16 year olds were accompanied by a volunteer whereas four eight year olds were not.58

The identity of the support person to accompany the child, or whether one was allowed at all, was often a last minute decision and could be a source of stress for volunteers as well as children, for example:

'The court had arranged for the volunteer to accompany both children. The NSPCC worker insisted in following the children to the link room. It was better for us to withdraw to make room for the NSPCC worker. We told the court. There was no objection'
'On a pre-trial court visit the child and mother requested to have the godmother in the CCTV link room on the day of trial. Our volunteer pointed out that the decision is up to the judge and we asked the police to put this request forward. Unfortunately the request was turned down and the girl and family were very upset. The judge preferred the volunteer to sit with the child in the CCTV link room. The social worker informed us that she will complain about this matter'
'The judge decided to place an usher with the girl in the CCTV link room instead of us. We had built up a very good relationship with the girl and family and everyone was disappointed that we were not allowed to give moral support to the girl when she gave evidence'
'The judge decreed that the usher should sit with the child. I felt that it would have been more in the child's interest to have continuation of support. It was wrong to hand over to a stranger at the most crucial point in the proceedings'.

The effect on the child of giving evidence

Volunteers commented on the effect giving evidence had on 34 children. For four (12 per cent of those about whom comments were provided) the experience was described as positive:

'He was very quiet but appeared to cope well'
'Came out very confident'
'She was fine'.

Comments concerning 31 children (91 per cent of those about whom comments were provided) described symptoms of stress. These included nervousness, sadness, anger and tearfulness. Two of the young witnesses had attempted suicide, including one who took an overdose of paracetamol tablets at the court and threatened to throw herself out of a third floor window. A girl with epilepsy and learning difficulties had seizures the night before the volunteer's home visit `through fear of who I was'. Other comments included:

'This boy was sick every night'
'The child was very nervous and had been having nightmares'
'Very upset and shaking'
'Very traumatic'
'Became distressed and was part heard over lunch'
'Very upset during and after'
'She was angry during cross-examination and became distressed and cried after giving evidence'
'Confused by the manner of defence questioning'
'Cross-examination made her very angry and uncooperative. Half way through she left without permission and had to come back later'
'At times made her angry and at other times sad'
'It was quite an ordeal for the witness. She cried a lot because she felt embarrassed that the cross examination revolved around who she slept with. She felt proud that she 'stood up' to the barrister'
'The child was very distressed following her evidence. She feared she was not believed. It was found there was an infringement by one of the jurors and a retrial was ordered. At the second trial, she was unhappy to be returning to court. There was a new prosecution barrister and the same defence barrister. The child gave different answers to questions asked on day one and was unable to recall dates, etc.'

Descriptions of nine of these 31 children (29 per cent of those with symptoms of stress) included some element of recovery and relief:

'Tearful at the end for a few minutes then fine. Better than last time'
'She was in tears on leaving court but recovered quickly'
'Became distressed part way through but coped'
'Was upset but held together well'
'Very nervous at start; more confident as case progressed'
'Visibly relieved as she had been dreading coming to court'.

Comments relating to 24 children (71 per cent of those about whom comments were provided on the effect of giving evidence) noted the effect of pre-trial delays and of delay at trial, for example:

'This whole case has been dragging on for twelve months. This 17 year old needed help and could not get it'
'Time taken from initial contact with the child until the court appearance was too long (three years). I felt another home visit was required. The police should have contacted us'
'A second pre-trial visit nine months after the first and immediately pre-trial (four days) helped with reassurance of support'
'The young one was taken to the CCTV link room and sat for one hour 15 minutes before starting to give evidence'
'The judge came into court to learn how to use the equipment while this six year old girl was waiting. She was asleep by lunchtime. It was her time to eat and we tried to tell this to counsel who went on anyway. The child was tired and cried and the case collapsed'
'The child's delayed start created tiredness and boredom'
'The child was well prepared and was relaxed and confident but because of several hours of delays he became increasingly tired, rapidly bored and had great difficulty concentrating in answering questions put by counsel (especially after watching an hour of his evidence on video)'
'Very bored hanging around court building from 10 a.m. until giving evidence at 3:45 p.m. But the judge insisted he finished the same evening as he had a flight booked for 7:30 a.m.'
'The trial was due to start at 10:00 a.m. but did not start until 2:00 p.m. This meant a delay of 4½ hours during which the child had to be kept occupied'
'Tired and restless on the first day as she had to sit through the video twice'
'She was looking forward to it early on, became bored during the day and was glad when it was all over'
'At time of giving evidence he was tired, bored and had an acute lack of concentration and just wanted to go home'.


Information from volunteers was received in relation to 107 child witnesses at four Court Centres. In respect of contact with the child witness, volunteers reported that:

The range of activities offered by the Witness Service varied at the four courts. Key aspects of preparation were as follows:

Support was provided to parents and carers:

Some volunteers communicated information about the child:

Some volunteers accompanied the child while giving evidence:

Volunteers commented on the effect of giving evidence on 34 children:

top of page