Young witness policy and practice in England and Wales
Children who are witnesses in court may have lived through trauma and abuse and their involvement in the criminal justice system can have a big impact on their recovery. Positive experiences can help them move forward but negative experiences can be damaging.
Receiving tailored support at every step of the witness process is a crucial part of helping children who have been abused get back on track.
In 2009, we published a report examining how well government policy and practice guidance met the needs of young witnesses in England and Wales (Plotnikoff and Woolfson, 2009).
Ten years later, the researchers gathered views from 272 criminal justice policymakers and practitioners to find out what has improved and what work still needs to be done.
Authors: Joyce Plotnikoff and Richard Woolfson
The policy and practice framework for young witnesses in England and Wales has improved since 2009, but provision of support is inconsistent. This means some children are still at risk of having negative experiences and being retraumatised.
Other key findings include:
- Children who are witnesses may have experienced trauma and their wellbeing should be paramount. However, there is no single overarching approach to safeguarding across the criminal justice system.
- Children aren’t always given the opportunity to feed back about what they found helpful or difficult at court, so that the process can be improved for the future.
- Children are not being told about their right to seek pre-trial therapy, and some professionals reported a lack of clarity about the rules about what is allowed.
- Support for child witnesses varied depending on location. For example, some courts’ waiting areas were described as very good or excellent, while others were seen as being inadequate for children.
- Children who had more positive experiences of the witness process received specialised support. This included having a communication assessment; visiting court before the trial; and being able to choose how and where they gave evidence.
- Reasons why children didn’t receive specialised support included: agencies didn’t communicate with each other effectively; children weren’t referred to services that could help them.
- Having to wait a long time for a trial can cause children anxiety and stress, and affect their ability to give a clear account of what has happened to them.
- Child sexual abuse cases take longer to get to court than other types of crime, and the time between the initial report and the trial is getting longer.
- To help children to give their best evidence in court, they are entitled to specialist communication support from a registered intermediary. They should also be questioned and cross-examined in a way that’s appropriate for their level of development.
- Most of the judges, lawyers and registered intermediaries we spoke to thought the way questions and cross-examinations are tailored to the needs of young witnesses had improved in the last year.
- However, not all children were given access to registered intermediaries, and respondents felt the questioning of children still varied significantly.
- There is a lack of leadership, ownership and accountability for policy and practice to support child witnesses in England and Wales.
- There are no official statistics about the number of children giving evidence in court, and unofficial statistics are difficult to compare and understand.
- The government has not delivered on its commitment to make training on working with vulnerable witnesses mandatory for advocates.
“I was at a trial yesterday with [a] 13-year-old. It has taken two years to get the case to court and during cross-exam she had to reply ‘I can’t remember’ to several questions. Part way through, she turned to me and said, ‘I can hardly remember any of it’.”
“A young boy with Asperger’s traits was extremely anxious before attending magistrates’ court. This was exacerbated by what then happened. He was left waiting for four hours ... He wished never to see the defendant (his father) and was reassured that this would not happen. When he was called, the first thing he saw was the defendant walking across the courtroom and sitting in full view. I had to jump up and block the boy’s view. I didn’t move until the court listened to my concerns. By the time his questions came, he was so stressed and tired that he gave one-word answers and left as quickly as he could. I left feeling like he had really been let down.”
Please cite as: Plotnikoff, J. and Woolfson, R. (2019) Falling short?: a snapshot of young witness policy and practice. London: NSPCC.
Plotnikoff, J. and Woolfson, R. (2009) Measuring up?: evaluating implementation of Government commitments to young witnesses in criminal proceedings. London: NSPCC.
Plotnikoff, J. and Woolfson, R. (2011) Young witnesses in criminal proceedings: a progress report on Measuring up? (2009). London: Nuffield Foundation.