Appeal to support children in court


    The NSPCC has just launched an appeal to raise £3.2m for
    expanding five of its young witness support projects. It is one of
    a handful of charities, including Barnardo’s and Victim
    Support, that ensures a volunteer assists a child before, during
    and, if necessary, after the court proceedings.



    What the scheme also attempts to ensure is that courts are not
    switched at the last minute and a child is familiar with the court
    procedure and the legal teams. Backing its campaign is a study,
    In Their Own Words, commissioned by the NSPCC and Victim
    Support, which for the first time asks young witnesses –
    rather than their parents or carers – about their experiences
    in cases which frequently involved sexual or physical
    abuse.



    Fifty young people, average age 12, drawn from 29 courts across the
    country gave their views. While a minority were positive about the
    experience, most voiced serious concerns about, for instance, the
    lengthy wait before coming to court and the aggressive treatment
    they received at the hands of barristers.



    A defendant is innocent until proven guilty but it was the young
    witnesses who frequently felt they were on trial. Baroness
    Scotland, Home Office minister for the criminal justice system,
    says the government is “actively addressing” the needs
    of young witnesses.



    In December, it launched a review into how children and young
    people give evidence. She also says that a survey last summer
    showed that three-quarters of child witnesses were satisfied with
    their experience of the criminal justice system. But the children
    and young people with the most telling opinions are those who are
    part of the attrition rate, dropping out of what is a deeply flawed
    process. One that shows little acknowledgement of children’s
    rights.



    Also, a review is unnecessary. We already know what is wrong. For
    several years, Joyce Plotnikoff, a former social worker and her
    colleague, Richard Woolfson, co-authors of In Their Own
    Words
    , have conducted research, commissioned by government,
    into the views of young witnesses.



    On the whole, reviews are costly (but not as expensive as investing
    in change), time-wasting exercises. Anyone who reads In Their
    Own Words
    will come to the same conclusion. If they care for
    the long-term health of their child, they will keep them out of
    court at all costs. In the name of real justice – that has to
    change.

     


    Yvonne Roberts

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