The Rotherham grooming scandal bolsters the case for more witness support, says Mark Castle.
Child victims of some of the worst crimes imaginable have been systematically denied respect, support and justice. That is not the only conclusion that should be drawn from the Rotherham grooming scandal, but it is the main one. The scale of the failure of justice in this one town is hard to comprehend. Yet the figures are stark: 1,400 suspected victims between 1997 and 2010 and just five people convicted. It is little wonder that South Yorkshire Police has invited the National Crime Agency to investigate outstanding allegations.
Many complainants were not believed when they first reported the crime, and the feeble response from the authorities emboldened the perpetrators. As a result, child victims of abduction, assault and rape are expected just to get on with their lives, knowing their abuser has escaped justice and could bump into them at any time, and with their confidence in the criminal justice system irrevocably harmed.
Imagine yourself in the place of one of these children. You have broken free of your abuser and want the authorities to protect you. You contact the police. Maybe they pressure you into dropping the allegation, saying no one will believe you. You persist. Maybe you and your family are attacked or intimidated by the offender and their associates. Your case goes to court. Maybe you will get to visit the court before the trial and choose to give evidence using ‘special measures’.
The trial begins. Maybe a registered intermediary supports you to understand the court and communicate well. You give evidence and are cross-examined. Maybe you are called a liar, fantasist or worse by barristers not trained to work with children. Maybe the defence case is built around common myths about child sexual abuse. Maybe your abuser is convicted, maybe they walk free. The trial ends. Maybe you get professional support or counselling. Maybe not.
Given the labyrinthine workings of our criminal justice system, only grooming victims who possess near superhuman resilience, and who get access to intensive support and professional counselling, can hope to see their offenders convicted.
Of course, the last two years have seen the trickle of these cases become a steady flow, as police and prosecutors change their approach to focus on the credibility of the allegation not the complainant. Our concern is that the courts remain ill-equipped to provide these often extremely vulnerable individuals with the chance to give their best possible evidence.
That is why Victim Support believes high-quality support for witnesses is more important than ever. Through our Witness Service, we helped the young women groomed in Oxford, Rochdale and Telford give evidence and, as a result, our charity understands much more about how to support these victims. We also supported complainants and witnesses in the Operation Yewtree trials. Staff and volunteers arranged pre-trial visits, so witnesses could familiarise themselves with the court setting. They provided a calm waiting area away from public spaces, and someone for witnesses to talk to. Of course, we are completely impartial, helping both defence and prosecution witnesses, always conscious of the difference between offering support and advice.
The value of support for witnesses is more widely recognised today. The government’s pilot scheme testing pre-recording the cross-examination of vulnerable victims and witnesses is a positive move, and there is greater understanding of the value of special measures such as screens or live link. The political consensus around a Victims Law is welcome too. But more can be done, for example through the wider use of ground rules hearings to establish how questioning will be approached, more use of intermediaries and mandatory training for all advocates in cases with vulnerable witnesses.
Mark Castle is chief executive of the charity Victim Support