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Mr. Maclean: I want to cover the subject and crack on. Too often the interests of justice have been frustrated, and the child further harmed, because it has not been possible for the child to cope with the full court process. But children have a right to justice, and their evidence is essential if society is to protect their interests and deal effectively with those who would harm them. Putting the child's interests first is our priority--but not to the extent of removing the defendant's right to a fair trial and to have the case against him properly tested.
Getting the balance right will always be a difficult and delicate task. Many people will be convinced that in individual cases the balance is not right--if they were the
Column 900judge and the jury. Nevertheless, I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that the Government have been able to improve the lot of child witnesses since his previous Adjournment debate and that we remain open to the possibility of further changes, where they can be justified.
I turn now to the points that my hon. Friend raised tonight. As he pointed out, there is some evidence that it is taking too long for child abuse cases to reach court. The criminal justice agencies are well aware of the adverse effect on the child of any unnecessary delay in bringing the ordeal to an end, and considerable efforts are being made to ensure that that delay is kept to an absolute minimum. In the Crown court, cases involving child witnesses are given high priority for hearing dates. Guidelines have been issued to listing officers, recommending that such cases be given a fixed date for trial, to ensure that expert and other witnesses have sufficient notice to make themselves available and so reduce the risk of late changes to the hearing dates. They also recommend that cases involving child witnesses should be given the earliest available date and that trial dates in such cases must be changed only in exceptional circumstances.
Child liaison officers are also charged with ensuring, as far as it is within the ability of the court to do so, that there is no unnecessary delay in bringing the cases to trial. Again, we are helping to fund research into the main reasons for delay. The Crown Prosecution Service recently issued guidance about cases involving child witnesses, which reminds prosecutors to use the procedures that are in force to help expedite cases involving child witnesses through the court and provides practical guidance about how those procedures can be used.
The Home Office-chaired steering group on child evidence has been looking into the issue and each of the agencies involved in the process has looked both at how delays arise at present and how the process can be streamlined in future. There are a number of positive initiatives in different parts of the country, including some fast tracking projects.
So we are tackling the problem of delays in a number of ways, but like my hon. Friend I hope that further improvements can be made to speed up the process of bringing child abuse cases to court. My hon. Friend raised the issue of therapy for children who have been abused. When a child receives certain types of counselling and therapy, the defence is liable to allege that the child has been coached, thus undermining the weight of his or her evidence. There is no absolute ban on children receiving therapy while investigations are taking place, but it is important that therapists operate within certain guidelines, so as not to prejudice a fair trial.
The Crown Prosecution Service has set up a seminar group to consider that issue. The group brings together legal practitioners and clinical experts. They are working on proposed guidance for therapists involved in treating child witnesses before trial. I very much hope that that guidance will make it easier for children who need therapy to receive it before trial, without in any way tainting their evidence in the eyes of the court.
My hon. Friend referred to judicial training and the need for training for the judiciary on conduct towards children in court. That is a matter for my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor, but I can tell my hon.
Column 901Friend and the House that the training of judges includes lectures on child evidence, child abuse and rape. Sessions have also been held on techniques for interviewing children.
The subject of judicial training is also on the agenda for the next meeting of the Home Office-chaired steering group on child evidence, when it hopes to discuss the issue with a representative of the Judicial Studies Board.
My hon. Friend also referred to the number of important decisions made at the last minute by the judge, such as whether to allow evidence to be given by a video link. I hope that the introduction of plea and direction hearings--in stages from the new year--in cases committed or transferred to the Crown court will make a significant difference to the problem.
At the plea and direction hearing, all parties will be required to identify whether any witnesses need special attention, including child witnesses. The judge can then ensure that all the necessary steps, including applications for the use of video-recorded evidence, television links or screens, have been taken in good time. That should reduce the number of cases in which a decision about granting such an application is delayed.
My hon. Friend referred to guidelines preventing an adult from being present in the room when a child is giving evidence by closed circuit television link. Under the Crown court rules, the child witness
"shall be accompanied by a person acceptable to a judge of the Crown Court, and unless the judge otherwise directs, by no other person".
The prescribed form for making applications includes a section in which the applicant may propose a named individual to accompany the witness, and give his or her reasons for doing so, for the judge to consider.
In October 1991, the deputy chief justice, Lord Justice Watkins, gave a direction that a court usher would be the most appropriate person to accompany a child witness. That person would fulfil a number of important functions--ensuring that the equipment is used properly in the first place, alerting the judge to any needs that the child might have, preventing unauthorised access to the room, and ensuring that the child is not prompted in any
Column 902way when giving evidence. The court usher has the independence that a child's relative or friend might not have and would be sufficiently knowledgeable about the procedures and equipment to be able to discharge the responsibility completely.
However, nothing would preclude an independent adult from accompanying the child, as long as the person was named on the application form. Of course, the final decision on who accompanies the child in the witness room is for the judge who considers the application.
My hon. Friend referred to the issue of cross-examination before trial. While the 1991 Act provided for children to give their evidence-in-chief in a video-recorded interview, it is still possible for a child to be cross- examined during the trial.
Quite often there will be a considerable delay between the giving of evidence on video and cross-examination upon that evidence. This could be seen to prolong the trauma for the child, and also to create an opportunity for defence counsel to exploit inconsistencies between the video recording and the answers to questions given on cross-examination. Being cross- examined can be a harrowing experience for adults, let alone children who have suffered abuse.
That underlies the suggestion that both the examination-in-chief and cross- examination of children should take place before trial. This could be done in a number of ways. One possibility, which was debated in the House as a proposed amendment to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, would be to allow the evidence of children to be taken "on commission". The court could appoint an independent commissioner who would oversee the questioning of the child by both the prosecution and defence counsel, and that would be recorded on video.
A similar system has just begun to operate in Scotland. My hon. Friend may detect--
The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker-- adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order. Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes past Eleven o'clock.
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