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

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

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
, 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


Yvonne Roberts

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