A 13-year-old witness struggled to recall information in detail when cross-examined in court after waiting two years for the trial to begin, according to research commissioned by the NSPCC, which says child witnesses are being let down by the criminal justice system.
The children's charity says that reducing delay between reporting and trial is crucial to ensuring that children can provide the 'most complete and consistent testimony' as possible. However, its report, Falling Short?, published yesterday, highlights the impact of delays on young witnesses.
One intermediary told the report: 'I had a case recently where I had met the child when she was four for the ABE [achieving best evidence], but the trial was two years later. A date was set and I’d been asked to attend, before it was decided that too much time had elapsed and she wouldn’t remember.'
Another intermediary recalled: '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-examination 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". It’s completely unacceptable that children should have to wait two years and then be expected to recall information in minute detail.'
According to respondents, which included judges, barristers and solicitors, demand for access to the young witness's social media, emails or phone records is cited as a major reason for pre-trial delays.
Government policy states that cases involving a vulnerable or intimidated witness must have a fixed date for the start of the trial. However, several respondents said fixtures involving young witnesses were sometimes 'floated'.
An independent sexual violence adviser recalled a 13-year-old whose first trial date was in May 2017, which was adjourned to December that year. On the way to court, the family was called to be told that the case was being adjourned to June 2018. 'The child’s education is suffering and the family has been devastated,' the adviser said.
While the report focuses heavily on child witnesses, it also highlights concerns that young defendants are treated differently. Some judges were concerned about the absence of a regulated intermediary scheme for vulnerable defendants. Some judges thought young defendants were dealt with less fairly than young witnesses for the prosecution, including a lack of automatic access to special measures and being routinely confined in the dock in adult courts.
Just for Kids Law, which represents and advises children, said 'too often' it finds that child defendants are not given the appropriate support they need. The charity's legal director and founder, Aika Stephenson, said this is particularly concerning 'given that a significant proportion of child defendants have learning difficulties, disabilities and mental health issues which can magnify the impact of court proceedings'.