Children and young people as witnesses - Alison Saunders, DPP
St Mary's Sexual Assault Referral Centre annual conference speech
Good Afternoon. Thank you for inviting me to your annual conference and for giving me the opportunity to discuss how we can ensure children and young witnesses are properly supported in the criminal justice system.
And as the conference marks 10 years of the St Mary's Centre's Children Service and 30 years since it was established, I would like to take the opportunity to thank and congratulate St Mary's for all its vital work.
Thank you, too, to all of the agencies present for helping the CPS to support witnesses through the court process.
It is important that we also look at what more we, the prosecution, might do. The prosecution don't just look at the credibility of the victim - we look at the credibility of the allegation and how we can support the witnesses.
Today, I want to outline some of the ways in which the Crown Prosecution Service already supports young victims and witnesses, but also highlight some possible initiatives for the future to help us further improve the service we provide.
What we're already doing
So what are we already doing which works well?
Since their introduction in 2002, the use of Special Measures for vulnerable and intimidated witnesses to help them give their best evidence has steadily increased. Children and young witnesses under 18 automatically qualify for special measures due to their age and the measures include victims and witnesses giving evidence in court from behind screen, by live link or in private by clearing the public gallery for example; and in some cases, evidence being video recorded or giving evidence with the aid of an intermediary, whose role is to facilitate coherent communication for victims and witnesses with learning or speech difficulties.
We still have to make applications for special measures, although over 80 per cent of applications are granted. It would be preferable if we were able to do this by exception.
We use special measures a lot but we must remember, as prosecutors, to ask witnesses how they would like to give their evidence.
It is without doubt that special measures significantly improve the experience of children victims and witnesses at court, and it is our duty to ensure that we continue to make special measures applications whenever required. So how do we do that?
At the very start of a case, there will be early special measures discussions held between the police and the CPS to assess individual needs of witnesses. For any witness under 18, there is a presumption that they will give their evidence-in-chief by a video recorded interview, which is known as Achieving Best Evidence.
Intermediaries are also usually involved in these cases to ensure children understand the questions being asked, particularly where there are communication or learning difficulties or in child sexual abuse cases or when children are traumatised due to what they have witnessed.
Since I have been DPP, I have heard some truly excellent examples of this in practice - where, for example, children have been interviewed in makeshift dens and tents in 'child friendly' interview suites by police and intermediaries, with sandpits and toys in the room. The aim is to make them feel as comfortable as possible so they are able to give their best evidence.
In one case, an 11-year-old with learning disabilities had been the victim of a serious sexual assault when he was six but police were unable to establish if the assault had involved penetration. An intermediary used the special measure of 'aids to communication' by using props - simple every-day items familiar to children - to establish what meant 'in' and 'out'. His ability to understand was tested with photo cards and subsequently he was able to describe what had happened to him and how much it had hurt by using a numerical scale with symbolised faces. The interview was played at trial and as a result the boy was not required to be cross-examined. The defendant was convicted.
For these interviews to work so well, we know we need to continue working closely with police and across government to ensure that guidance on these interviews is relevant, incorporates best practice and is up-to-date - which is why we have recently worked with the Ministry of Justice to improve the guidance on this subject. One of the main issues is the effectiveness of the guidance itself because it's such a large document, therefore we have helped simplify the document and add better signposting, to ensure the guidance is better used by police and prosecutors. We have also helped to improve the interview planning sections for police so the 'Achieving Best Evidence' interviews are better structured. This is important because the lack of preparation affects the quality of the interview conducted and our evidential use of the ABE interview, which ultimately impacts on trial length in the courts. It is anticipated that the updated version should be published in the next month.
Directly related to video recorded interviews, are the section 28 pilots that have been running in Liverpool, Leeds and Kingston for the last two years, where children and young people under 16 are also able to video record their cross-examination before the trial. The questions for cross-examination are agreed at a Ground Rules Hearing before the section 28 hearing, and then both the recorded evidence-in-chief and the recorded cross-examination is played at trial so the witness does not need to be present. This is particularly beneficial for children and young people because the anxiety of having to wait to give evidence is reduced and the quality of evidence is improved because witnesses are not being asked to recall events that happened a long time ago.
So far, there has been very positive feedback from victims and witnesses and because defendants are not waiting until the day of trial to see if the witness turns up and gives evidence, we are seeing an increase in guilty pleas before trial.
An excellent example of this was a recent case where the defendant was accused of rape of a girl and cruelty to another child. The case was put into the s28 scheme and the two child witnesses provided their pre-recorded cross examination three months after charge - which was four months before the trial.
The defendant pleaded guilty to one count of child cruelty but not guilty to three counts of rape. However, because of the quality of the evidence he was convicted and sentenced to an extended custodial sentence of 24 years.
Counsel in the case described the scheme as brilliant, highlighting that it was clear that the children were so relieved to give evidence without delay and not in front of a jury with lots of people watching them.
The pilots have been fully supported by the CPS and we will continue to support the Ministry of Justice alongside the police and HMCTS with the plans to roll-out the pilots nationally to implement this last special measure.
Young Witness Initiative
Another important step for better supporting children in the criminal justice system was taken last year, when a judicially-led project called the 'Young Witness Initiative', culminated in a protocol being signed between the CPS, police and HMCTS to expedite cases in the courts involving a witness who is under the age of 10. The aim is to fast-track these cases to trial, with the police to charge as soon as possible, the CPS to provide charging advice within 7 days for bail cases, the police to provide a full file within 3 weeks of the initial hearing in the magistrates' court and a provisional trial date to be set no more than 8 weeks from date of plea.
This, with section 28, is vitally important because it gives children the best chance of remembering the incident and makes the criminal justice process less stressful - in turn helping them to give their best evidence.
Technology also offers us the ability to improve the experience of victims and witnesses.
I am aware that St Mary's SARC is set up to allow victims and witnesses to give their evidence remotely. It is one of a number of sites now offering this facility and I have heard good examples where witnesses are feeling better supported.
For instance, in a case where there were very serious sexual charges including rape of a girl and a boy both under 13, the two child victims were able to attend a local Public Protection Unit, at a police station, to give their evidence in a remote and secure environment, accompanied by intermediaries. It went well and the jury convicted the defendant without the children having to attend court in person with the risk of seeing the defendant.
A cross-agency review of all remote sites for giving evidence is underway. This was set up to enable the judiciary to be assured that all 18 remote sites are secure for vulnerable and intimidated witnesses. Judges also wanted assurance that when giving evidence victims and witnesses will be supported, for instance by the Citizens Advice Witness Service and a member of HMCTS staff to operate the equipment and assist with exhibits.
The review is now nearing completion and a report is being prepared giving those assurances to the judiciary and setting out next steps to set up and operate the sites going forward - any best practice identified in that report from the 18 sites will be shared nationally.
What else are we doing?
But what else are we doing to improve the experience of victims and witnesses?
Within the CPS we are currently rolling out new arrangements for 'speaking to witnesses at court'.
Our new approach - which will be in place nationally by the end of June - will help ensure that witnesses are able to give their best evidence by providing more support through the court process.
This new approach will make a real difference to victims and witnesses of all ages in a wide range of cases, but we know that children and young people have particular needs - and we know we are facing an significant increase in child sexual abuse cases.
So what's on the horizon to help cope with this?
First - to help ensure that cross-examination of vulnerable victims is effective and appropriate questions are asked of witnesses, we have worked with the Advocacy Training Council to help develop the Rook Advocacy Training Course, which is now mandatory for all criminal practitioners - regardless of whether a case is publically or privately funded. The training will be comprised of 5 sessions which are designed to develop the specialist skill required to cross-examine vulnerable victims so that they give accurate information and their best evidence, rather than exploiting learning, developmental or communication limitations. This national course will also ensure there are high standards in the quality and consistency of advocacy by all advocates involved in these cases whether barrister or solicitor and whether in the Crown Court or Youth Court. It is anticipated that this training will be delivered from May this year until the end of 2018 and the CPS has put forward trainers to help deliver this these courses.
We are working with the police and judiciary so we will be able to streamline prosecutions for some indecent images of children offenders, enabling us to tackle criminality more effectively and much quicker.
Following Dame Elish Angiolini's Rape Review last year, there was concern expressed at the length of time that some complainants have to wait before receiving therapy. It was recommended that the CPS should work with the police and the Department of Health to review and update the existing guidance for children and adults to ensure that therapy is not delayed by an over-cautious approach by police and prosecutors. This is contained within our existing guidelines but we are nevertheless taking the opportunity to update our pre-trial therapy guidance, which dates back to February 2001. Therefore we are currently working across government to ensure our guidelines are absolutely clear that access to therapy should be sought immediately if required, and if requested it should be facilitated, to ensure that children, young people and vulnerable or intimidated adults receive the emotional support and counselling that they need both before and after the trial.
We are also involved in discussions around possibly adapting the Icelandic Barnahus Model for use in England and Wales. The Barnahus or 'Children's House' model, along with the Child Advocacy Centre in the US, place the child's welfare at the centre of the therapeutic and criminal processes and have been identified as best practice internationally. The applicability of their principles in England and Wales are being considered after a review was published on behalf of NHS England last year regarding sexual assaults for children and young people in London.
The Barnahus model involves a joint investigative interview. When a child discloses a sexual assault, an appointment is made at the Barnahus. An interview is then conducted by a specially trained paediatric psychotherapist interviewer in a child-friendly room which is video-linked to an observation room. The interview is witnessed by the child's advocate, social worker, the defence and prosecution teams, with a Judge presiding. The interview is video recorded and may subsequently by used during a criminal trial. The Barnahus model has reportedly led to a significant increase in the number of prosecutions and convictions for CSA offences. Moreover, the interviews are usually completed within one to two weeks of the initial allegation being made, allowing the child to start therapy quickly, either at the Barnahus or locally.
This works within the Icelandic investigative legal framework and NHS England have been considering feasibility of application in England and Wales following the Section 28 pilots. A joint bid by the London Mayor's Office of Policing and Crime (MOPAC) and NHS England to the Home Office Police Innovation Fund has recently been approved and, as a result, three pilot houses will be set up in North London, South London and Durham. We are currently working with those parties involved in the pilot to understand whether and how any recorded material could be used evidentially.
Before I finish I want to highlight that we have recently revised our guidelines for prosecutors dealing with cases involving the use of social media. A public consultation regarding the changes runs until 12 May - and I would encourage you all to consider and respond.
I hope I have provided you with a useful summary of what we are doing and what we plan to do to ensure that children and young people are as supported and as protected as they can be.
Significant progress has been made in recent years but we will continue to strive to improve the experience of all victims and witnesses - as I know all of you will be doing too.
Notes to editors
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