Children in court - Part 1
This study examined 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 at Court A, where new procedures were introduced, and collected information from Courts B, C and D where procedures for the support of child witnesses were already in place.
Despite budget constraints, it was possible to employ a range of strategies in conducting the evaluation. 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.
Volunteers' questionnaires provided information about 107 young witnesses in 55 cases. The children's average age was 13. Eighty per cent were of white European origin. Children were related to 25 percent of defendants. A total of 83 children gave evidence.
Courts A and B collected additional information about 42 children called as witnesses. A videotaped interview was shown as the evidence-in-chief of 55 per cent of these children. Fifty-two per cent used the CCTV link; 31 per cent gave evidence in open court and 17 per cent were screened.
There were 47 cases at Courts A and B. In 72 per cent of them the principal charge concerned a sexual offence. The outcome was known of 26 trials. Sixty-two per cent resulted in convictions. Sentences were known for 13 convicted defendants, all of whom received a custodial sentence.
The pilot project at Court A
- The pilot project terms of reference incorporated the
following tasks for volunteers:
- the child's familiarisation with the court process using the Child Witness Pack
- participating in the pre-trial visit to court arranged by the child liaison officer
- being with the child at court during the trial
- accompanying the child into the courtroom or the CCTV link room
- a post-trial visit to the child if requested
- nine of the ten commentators on the scheme at Court A (a CPS lawyer, barrister and seven police officers) felt that the scheme had helped 'a lot'. The tenth respondent was a judge from Court A who felt that the pilot scheme had helped child witnesses 'a little'. No commentator thought that Witness Service volunteers had behaved inappropriately either in the preparation of child witnesses or while acting as support person when the child gave evidence. Most respondents commented very favourably on the pilot scheme
- during the study, Court A experienced significant changes in key personnel, including the resident judge, chief clerk and child liaison officer. The position of chief clerk changed four times. These changes posed difficulties for the implementation of the scheme
- although the project terms of reference had been agreed with the relevant Area Child Protection Committees and, as requested, with the Presiding Judges of the circuit, subsequent changes were made by the court. These included the circumstances under which pre-trial home visits could be conducted and, as a result, Victim Support decided to withdraw this element from the pilot project. The scheduling of the volunteer's presence at pre-trial court visits proved difficult in the start-up phase
- these changes occurred in an ad hoc manner and were not reflected systematically in project policy documents. This caused some uncertainty among those whose role it was to implement that policy. The formal exchange of protocols agreed by both the Witness Service and the Court Service came at a late stage in the process, months after the pilot project was underway1
- the protocols agreed between the Court Service and Witness Service did not address what is good practice during the child's pre-trial court tour and session on the CCTV link. Such a protocol could include examples of innocuous questions to ask the child over the CCTV link
- because Court A serves an ethnically mixed community, hopes were expressed at the planning stage that the background of volunteers would reflect this mix. However, the only volunteer from an ethnic minority community resigned from the pilot project before it got underway and the scheme involved only white British volunteers. Six of the 12 children in the project at Court A were described by volunteers as belonging to an ethnic minority.
Witness Service training
- The training provided to volunteers and Witness Service staff in the pilot programme consisted of attendance at a two-day multi-agency child protection course and a two-day course on supporting child witnesses aimed specifically at volunteers
- the child witness course was itself a pilot. The training methods were very well received by participants. In a self-assessment exercise before and after the course, most participants scored a high rate of increased knowledge in relation to children's experience of the court process, understanding the legal and judicial framework, the impact of the work on the volunteer, assessing the practical needs of the child and family and in knowing how to prepare a child witness
- in respect of other course objectives, some participants scored themselves as having a low rate of increased knowledge or rated it as being the same before and after training. One explanation may be that they already had reasonable skill levels prior to embarking on training. Other ways of assessing whether such a course has met its objectives should be explored
- the volunteers' course was delivered by experienced social services child protection trainers, an officer from a child protection team and a CPS representative. The Witness Service co-ordinators from Courts A and B presented an overview of how support of child witnesses was dealt with in each court. However, there was no presentation from court personnel
- trainers described the content of the programme as moving away from the 1994 NSPCC Training and Resource Guide in order to provide more detailed role plays and experiential exercises. However, use of the guide was part of the initial proposal to Court A about the pilot project
- participants felt that written instructions were needed to back up verbal explanations about what was required of them in certain training exercises
- some small group exercises lacked a designated person to feed back to the group on the accuracy of information given and to move the role play on at certain points
- although requested to do so prior to training, some volunteers had not observed a child witness trial and had not become familiar with the contents of the Child Witness Pack
- due to an unplanned presentation concerning the disclosure of 'new' information by children, volunteers were confused by instructions about what to do if the child wished to talk about the evidence
- some volunteers expressed a need for more information of a practical nature, including learning more about the roles of others in the system such as the child liaison officer, usher and social worker. Experience with the CCTV link equipment in the court was also seen as relevant
- at the end of the study, volunteers reflected that they had not felt prepared for the frustrations encountered in individual cases.
The views of young witnesses and their carers
The project received responses from 25 parent/ carers in cases at Courts A and B.
- 80 per cent said that the Witness Service volunteer had helped answer their questions
- 48 per cent described their child as 'very worried' before meeting the volunteer
- nearly all parents said that the volunteer had helped 'a lot' in answering the child's questions, telling them what to expect and making the child feel more confident
- the reassurance offered to the child, the pre-trial visit and explanations about what happens at court were seen as equally helpful
- 44 per cent of parents added positive comments about the Witness Service
- 32 per cent thought that preparation could be improved, for example by providing more information, spending more time on preparation and improving waiting facilities
- of the 14 parents who expressed a view about how their child was dealt with by the court process, eight were satisfied and six expressed dissatisfaction
- after the case ended, 64 per cent of parents described their child as 'relieved' and 32 per cent described their child as 'distressed'.
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.
- 80 per cent said that the volunteer had answered all their questions
- 84 per cent said they were told 'a lot' about court
- 24 per cent of the children who described how they felt about being a witness were positive
- 62 per cent described themselves as 'scared', 'frightened', 'nervous', 'afraid' or 'worried' about giving evidence. Responses from parents and volunteers suggest that adults may have under-estimated these children's feelings
- when asked about the advice they had received from the volunteer, 56 per cent mentioned who's who in the courtroom (in particular, advice about the location of the defendant or not looking at him); 52 per cent remembered advice 'not to be worried' and 22 per cent recalled advice about telling the truth
- 84 per cent of the children offered advice to others. All of their comments were framed positively 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.
Interviews were conducted with the parents of six young witnesses and with three young witnesses themselves.
- Interviewees were pleased with the support provided by the Witness Service. In two cases, parents said that volunteers had helped them contain their anger and emotions in the courtroom.
Matters of concern raised by interviewees included:
- pre-trial delays
- delays on the day of trial, sometimes with extreme effects on the child concerned (for example, a six year old who was brought to court at 9.15 am but whose videotaped interview was not played until 3 pm and who did not start to give evidence until nearly 4 o'clock)
- constraints on the provision of therapy for children because
- the fear of contaminating the child's evidence, although internal CPS policy is clear that the prosecution cannot prevent the child from receiving therapy
- lack of access to resources if the child does not fall within social services' remit
- some parents' feelings of isolation pre-trial and powerlessness in the court environment
- some mothers who received medication from their GP for stress caused at least in part by the court process
- the mother of a boy with learning difficulties who had been sexually assaulted would have liked the choice of a female volunteer to accompany her son
- last-minute arrangements to separate the child and parent overnight when the parent had still to give evidence, and confusion about the circumstances in which this was necessary
- one child saw another witness, her best friend, in tears leaving the court as she was brought in
- parents who chose to listen to closing speeches and the judge's summing up found this stressful
- in one case, the police referred the family to Victim Support for assistance when the Witness Service, constrained by its terms of reference, was unable to have contact with children and families prior to the Crown Court plea and directions hearing.
The views of Witness Service volunteers
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:
- 30 per cent met the child for the first time on the day of trial
- 26 per cent met the child less than two weeks before the trial but 42 per cent became involved between two weeks to more than three months before the trial
- on average, volunteers saw child witnesses twice and spent six hours with them. It appeared that much of this time was spent waiting with the child at court rather than in direct preparation activities.
The range of activities offered by the Witness Service varied at the four courts. Key aspects of preparation were as follows:
- two Witness Service schemes offered a pre-trial home visit
- two Witness Service schemes provided the Child Witness Pack
- the pre-trial court visit was the most frequently used technique for preparing child witnesses
- only 22 per cent of volunteers played question and answer games with children to help with cross-examination
- 94 per cent felt able to answer all of the child's questions and 86 per cent thought that preparation made the child feel more confident but only 70 per cent felt that preparation was adequate for what the child actually experienced
- 73 per cent of volunteers commenting on their experience in individual cases felt they had done a good job but 36 per cent spoke of frustration, disappointment, inadequacy and their own distress at the process.
Support was provided to parents and carers:
- 96 per cent of volunteers said that Witness Service support had been provided to the child's parent/ carer
- only 57 per cent of volunteers had been able to provide a copy of the parent's booklet 'Your child is a witness'
- Some comments reflected the frustration felt by volunteers when parents were seen as responding inappropriately to the child or as impeding the volunteer's efforts.
Some volunteers communicated information about the child:
- 39 per cent of volunteers reporting passing on information about the child to the police, court or CPS. Of these, three-quarters thought this had made a 'difference'. Most communications by the volunteer about the child were made to the police
- 2 per cent of volunteers experienced difficulties in supporting the child because of problems in coordinating with organisations external to the court, most frequently CID officers who were unfamiliar with child witness procedures
- At one court in the study, volunteers criticised the practice of listing two CCTV link trials on the same day although the court had only one equipped courtroom.
Some volunteers accompanied the child while giving evidence:
- 43 per cent of the children who gave evidence were accompanied by the volunteer during their testimony. Cases in which the volunteer accompanied the child were all drawn from two of the four courts in the study. Thus seven 16 year olds were accompanied by the volunteer whereas four eight year olds were not.
Volunteers commented on the effect of giving evidence on 34 children:
- for 12 percent, the experience was described as positive
- comments concerning 91 per cent included symptoms of stress
- 29 per cent of the children with symptoms of stress were also described as experiencing recovery and relief once their evidence was completed
- the effects of pre-trial delays and delay on the day of trial were noted in relation to 72 per cent of these children.
- A model protocol covering child witness preparation and procedures at court should be developed. The protocol should draw on existing local child witness agreements involving the Witness Service 2 and the 'Witness care' statement produced by the Trials Issues Group.
- In order to improve the confidence of courts and others in the criminal justice system in child witness preparation schemes, Victim Support National Office should work with those concerned with child witness preparation to clarify the level of skills required.
- In order to improve the quality of preparation of child witnesses to give evidence, Victim Support National Office should work with other organisations concerned with child witness support to establish agreed guidance on what constitutes appropriate preparation.
- A comprehensive training programme for volunteers should be developed to address the competencies required in child witness support. The scope of this training needs to be broader than that of the pilot two day programme which was insufficient to cover all aspects of the task.
- Volunteers should be allowed enough time to work effectively with child witnesses and their parent/ carers before the day of trial. Due weight should be given to the wishes of parents and carers to play a part in the preparation process.
- Copies of the Child Witness Pack should be made available to children and carers at a sufficiently early stage in court proceedings. Victim Support should continue to press for systematic provision of the Pack on a national basis.
- Improved methods are needed to give the criminal justice process, including the Witness Service, advance notice of child witness cases.
- Training should address the liaison and communication aspects of child witness support. Representatives of relevant organisations, including court staff, should be requested to take part in the training programme. Attention should be paid to the special liaison role of Witness Service coordinators and Crown Court child liaison officers (now entitled child witness officers).
- Discussions should be undertaken locally to facilitate, where appropriate, the sharing of confidential information about the child to ensure that the preparation process is conducted as efficiently and effectively as possible.
- The Witness Service should discuss with the court and the
- the scheduling of children's evidence and problems of delays on the day of trial
- ways to ensure that the judge and the prosecution have all relevant information about the child's welfare or ability to give evidence and to keep this updated when delays occur.
- In conjunction with other organisations providing support to child witnesses, Victim Support should continue to press for a review of court guidance on who may accompany the child witness while giving evidence.
- In conjunction with other organisations providing support to child witnesses, the Witness Service should endeavour to establish a mechanism for regular feedback to the judiciary and others about the experience of child witnesses and their carers both in respect of what works well and what is perceived to be problematic.
1. A model service level agreement on witness care in the criminal justice system, issued by the
Trial Issues Group after the close of this study and based on nationally agreed standards, is
discussed in the final chapter. This emphasises the importance of identifying individuals
responsible for implementation, interpretation and amendment of the agreement.
2. Examples of such protocols involving the Witness Service include those agreed at Teeside,
Gloucester and Northampton Crown Court Services.