Friday, 11 October 2013

Child abusers must be brought to justice. Helping their victims give evidence in court is vital

There have been a number of heart-rending cases of child abuse in the news recently. Each of them is tragic and disturbing. How, we ask, can a mother like Amanda Hutton be so deranged and callous as to starve her four-year-old son to death? Perhaps even worse was the joint enterprise perpetrated by the parents of another four-year-old, Daniel Pelka, who died after what the judge in their trial described as "a sustained period of appalling cruelty."

Daniel's parents were rightly sentenced to life imprisonment in August this year. At least justice was done in this dreadful case. But many other instances of child abuse, particularly those with a sexual element, are regrettably not prosecuted satisfactorily. According to NSPCC statistics, fewer than 25% of 23,000 child sex offences recorded in England and Wales last year ended in prosecution.

The best evidence serves justice

This is a terribly dismaying statistic. It exists not because children are lying but because they do not receive the support they need in order to give evidence in court. Cases routinely collapse; abusers walk free and, often enough, offend again.

Staggeringly, just two per cent of child witnesses received guidance from registered advisors, says the NSPCC. At least half of them did not understand the questions they were being asked. The experience of giving evidence is intimidating enough for adult witnesses in cases without a sexual element; how much worse must it be for a child or vulnerable victim in a sexual abuse case?

It must be terrifying - a reliving of the harrowing events to which the witness was so wrongly subjected, made all the more difficult by aggressive cross-examination by barristers and the inherent formality of legal proceedings. For this reason, NSPCC chief executive Peter Wanless is absolutely right when he says: "It is vital that children are supported by a registered intermediary when they are interviewed by the police and if they give evidence in a trial. Justice can only be served if they are able to give their best evidence."

As Mr Wanless also says: "These children have to publicly relive the most traumatic, upsetting and humiliating experience of their lives in order to try and get justice. A victim of child sex abuse is usually the sole witness to the crime and the strength of the case lies in their testimony."

NSPCC research shows that more than half of child witnesses reported stress symptoms such as panic attacks, self-harm and difficulty sleeping ahead of trials. No wonder, given the findings of the NSPCC's research.

New CPS guidelines

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling
Justice Secretary Chris Grayling

Thankfully, the Crown Prosecution Service has been consulting on this difficult issue, and is soon to release new guidelines. It is to be hoped that they will substantially improve matters for children, and that we will see the comments of the Lord Chief Justice, Sir John Thomas, come to fruition. His Lordship said recently he would introduce a pool of judges with specific training for complex child abuse cases.

Another sensible idea was trailed by Chris Grayling, the Secretary of State for Justice, in the summer. Mr Grayling said that young and vulnerable victims, who have survived the most horrific crimes, will be offered the chance pre-record both their evidence and any cross-examination for a later trial. This innovation is being piloted in Leeds, Liverpool and Kingston-Upon-Thames.

Witnesses in civil cases should not be forgotten

I would go further, and say not only that the scheme should be deployed nationally, but that we also need to look at civil justice, too. Child abuse victims may rightly wish to bring claims for redress, and while the burden of proof is lower in civil cases than in criminal trials, the giving of evidence is just as fraught and potentially upsetting.

In campaigning to bring perpetrators of child abuse to justice we are doing the right thing by improving the lot of victims who have to give evidence in a criminal trial. But let's improve things across the board. Let's bring about the same positive changes in civil cases, too.

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