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Child sex abuse victims failed by courts, says NSPCC

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Media captionAlan Wardle from the NSPCC said aggressive questioning of a child could hinder good evidence being given in court

Some sexual abuse cases are collapsing because children are being denied the support they need to give evidence in court, the NSPCC has warned.

It said fewer than 25% of 23,000 child sex offences recorded in England and Wales last year ended in prosecution.

The charity said all children who testify should have access to a registered intermediary who can help them with hostile questions.

New guidelines on child sex abuse cases are due out later this month.

Ministers say measures to help vulnerable witnesses are already available, but they acknowledge that more needs to be done.

Research carried out by the NSPCC indicated that more than 50% of child witnesses experienced symptoms of stress such as difficulty sleeping and eating, depression, panic attacks and self-harm in the lead-up to a trial.

'Credible witnesses'

The charity found at least half were unable to understand some of the questions they were asked in court.

However, it said just 2% of all children giving evidence in criminal court cases received guidance from registered advisors to help them understand criminal proceedings and legal language.

Last year, the charity's ChildLine service conducted more than 1,000 counselling sessions with children worried about attending court.

Peter Wanless, chief executive of the NSPCC, said: "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."

He added: "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."

Lisa McCrindle, senior policy analyst for the NSPCC, said intermediaries needed to be brought in to show courts how much children were "struggling".

"Barristers interview witnesses in quite an aggressive manner," she said. "The courts are concentrating on the point of law, which is correct, but it means there is often little or no communication between the courts and the child."

But she said that she was "hopeful" that new Crown Prosecution Service guidelines on prosecuting child sexual abuse cases, which are due out later this month, would work on prioritising children as "credible witnesses" and bringing about successful prosecutions.

Professor Penny Cooper, chair of the Advocates Gateway, which provides guidance on vulnerable witnesses and defendants, said intermediaries were a "vital resource" for helping people communicate with children in court.

'Pre-recorded evidence'

She said: "If you take a witness who's three or four years old... the advocates and indeed the judges need specialist advice about how to construct their questions in the right way, how often to give the child a break, that sort of thing."

The organisation sited examples of over-complex sentences posed to children, such as: "Where were you born and where do you reside?".

It also highlighted the use of idioms and metaphors in court, for example, "that's put it, as it were, into the long grass", and leading questions, such as: "Now, this happened on a Friday, was it not?"

Justice Minister Damian Green said everything possible should be done to "support child witnesses to give their best possible evidence to bring offenders to justice".

He said: "There are a range of measures available to help reduce the anxiety of attending court, including giving evidence behind a screen or the use of a registered intermediary, which has increased significantly over recent years.

"We are also trialling pre-recorded evidence for young and vulnerable witnesses."

Mr Green said he had ordered an investigation into how best to reduce the distress felt by victims during cross examination "without compromising the fundamental right to a fair trial".

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