Witness support services failing children

The needs of child witnesses are being ignored by courts causing
unnecessary distress and trauma, according to a recently published
report by the Scottish executive.

The study, An Evaluation of Child Witness Support, commissioned
by the Scottish executive, analyses child witness programmes in
Glasgow over the past three years. The authors, independent
consultants Joyce Plotnikoff and Richard Woolfson, conclude that
the needs of child witnesses are being ignored even when help is

The report points out that as far back as 1990, the Scottish Law
Commission stated that child witnesses should receive “careful
pre-trial preparation…coupled with sensitive handling of the
child from the moment of arrival at the court house”. If this was
done then the application of screens or CCTV facilities would be
appropriate in only exceptional circumstances.

The authors point out that this stance assumes that the child
and their representatives are being advised of alternative ways to
give evidence, the needs of each child are being assessed in
advance, the views of the child are being taken into account and
each child witness is being handled sensitively.

The report concludes that none of these steps are being applied
consistently. Even where the child or their representative asks
about protective arrangements, there is often a failure to act on
their needs.

Dr Anne Stafford, policy officer for Children 1st ,
the child protection voluntary organisation, said: “We’ve
known how to protect child witnesses for over 10 years. Even adults
can be traumatised by the most routine appearance in court.
Children need help when and where they need it, not when the court
process has commenced.”

The report concludes that treatment of child witnesses needs to
take account of articles 12 and 13 of the UN Convention on the
Rights of the Child, which guarantee the child’s right to
impart information free “from any constraints or fear, anxiety or
distress”. The authors believe that this can be achieved simply by
implementing the government’s own guidance on protecting
children a move which would “again put Scotland in the forefront of
child witness policy and practice”.







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