Case study #9: Being a child witness in Scotland

children-1stThis case study was written for Together’s 2016 ‘State of Children’s Rights’ report by Harriet Hall, Communications and Engagement Manager at Children 1st. They help Scotland’s families to put children first, with practical advice and with support in times. Children 1st also support survivors of abuse, neglect and other traumatic events in childhood, to recover. The case study headlined the report chapter on Special Protection Measures.

Jane was told she could use a live TV link to give evidence during her Dad’s trial, which took place in 2014. Since the Victims and Witnesses (Scotland) Act 2014 came into force, all children under the age of 18 have an automatic right to standard special measures, such as giving evidence by live TV link, using a screen and/or using a supporter.

However, as Jane’s experience shows, child witnesses continue to experience additional trauma and are unable to give their best evidence, as a result of court processes and procedures.

To prevent Jane from seeing her Dad she was asked to arrive at the court for 9:30am. When she arrived she was shown into a dirty room and told she had to wait there until the court was ready to hear from her. Nobody told Jane how long she might have to wait for, or what was happening. People came in and out of the room all day without explaining to Jane who they were or what  they were doing.

Jane was about to give evidence against her Dad, who had been charged with assaulting her Mum. She had no privacy and no idea what was happening. She began to feel scared and confused and started to worry that she might see her Dad. After waiting like this for 7 hours, Jane was eventually called to give her evidence at 4:15pm.

Jane was introduced to the court, but those in the court were not introduced to her. She didn’t know who was speaking to her or asking her questions. What she did know was that her Dad was in the room with them.

People in the court asked Jane questions using complicated language that she couldn’t understand. Jane didn’t know if she could ask the questioner to repeat the question so that it would be clearer for her. Jane became confused.

Although Jane had a supporter in court, the supporter was not allowed to speak during the evidence session. This meant the supporter was unable to let the court know that Jane could not understand the questions she was being asked. When Jane became very upset, the supporter was unable to ask the court for a short break to enable Jane to recompose herself.

Jane left court feeling that she had been unable to give her best evidence. Instead of feeling that justice had been done, Jane felt frustrated. Things felt worse than they had before she had given evidence. Unfortunately, Jane’s experience is common to many child witnesses in Scotland, who often experience additional trauma as a result of participating in a justice process that is driven by the needs of the system, instead of children’s rights and wellbeing.

Evidence from Together’s State of Children’s Rights report 2016 finds that as it stands, procedures are still embedded in a criminal justice system that is designed for, and by, adults, and which does not have adequate protections for children. This is out of step with recent positive policy changes such as GIRFEC, that place children’s rights at the centre and with the ambitions of ‘Equally Safe’ (see page 66), which recognises the key role of the criminal justice system in keeping women and girls safe from violence and abuse. Organisations such as Justice for Children continue to call for reform of the justice system for child victims and witnesses that goes far beyond the use of pre-trial video recording.

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