Home Affairs CommitteeWritten evidence from NWG Network in Association with Victim Support [LCG 22]

The NWG Network was asked for a further submission on victims and witnesses and the court process. This report was jointly develop between Victim Support and NWG Network.

Independent Sexual Violence Advocate

The Independent Sexual Violence Advocate (ISVA) role is an extremely important role in supporting victims of sexual exploitation, sexual violence and rape. An ISVA can assist a young person to better understand and manage the whole court process. Each one should be specially trained in working with children and young people and understand the whole judicial process.

Introduction to a trained ISVA at the beginning of the process is vital, often young people experience a number of professionals “moving on” to other posts/cases during their experience. An ISVA allows for a constant individual who has only the interests of the child at heart, which is essential in these complex cases.

Understanding the issues facing young people who have been sexually exploited and raped is essential. We see many key workers from dedicated teams supporting victims and witnesses, some of these are ISVA’s, others experienced Child Sexual Exploitation workers, some who support the young person but not all have had previous experience of court processes.

We need to understand the journey that the young person has been through, the likelihood of further disclosures, retraction of allegations and the control through fear and retribution they experience. These features should be seen as a symptom of the abuse suffered and should not have a negative impact on the young person’s court experience.

To have the same supporting individual present from ABE interview till the end of the process will allow a young person to develop trust and confidence to share more details of abusers as time goes on. Young people will often share their worst experiences at a very late stage so it is important that this relationship is constant and maintained.

It is essential we use Registered Intermediaries from the onset of cases. Many police forces consider having trained officers with ABE interviewing skills as sufficient and that Registered Intermediaries are only used in cases where there are communication difficulties such as very young children or those with learning difficulties, However, when it comes to court and young people 12 to 16 years old being cross examined by multiple defence barristers, a lack of intermediary to be able to intervene in court proceedings on a child’s behalf is devastating. Equally, introducing an intermediary late into the process doesn’t help the young person or intermediary build a trusting relationship, which is vital. In addition to this an intermediary would not only be able to assist with communication barriers but also help with establishing credibility and highlighting vulnerability of a victim/witness.

Ushers require specific training in meeting the needs of the young person experiencing the court process, we currently experience a “we don’t do that in this court” attitude that hampers a victim/witness attending court and giving evidence.

Having a robust Young Witness Service can really assist with this as they will already have a relationship with the court manager and the usher and can sort many of the practicalities out and help prepare and support the young person through the process and also provide post trial support.

The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) young witness packs are currently being revised—these can be a useful preparation resource for children and young people and for those supporting them through the process.

Specialist Courts seems to work well in Domestic Abuse cases, appearing in front of an informed judge and victims being supported by those who understand the complexities of the issues. These features would add value where young people appear as a victim/witness in sexually violent cases.

Over the past few years we have seen some horrendous cases where the errors in the use of “special measures” has negatively hampered a case and those within the court process have not understood the potential impact on the victims/witnesses.

Examples of these are:

A court appearance several years after the exploitation took place went ahead, but the appearance of the victim is considerable partly due to age, partly due to protecting her identity, but errors in the process showed the present identity to the whole court, defendants, jury, public gallery etc.

Although screens have been requested, we have seen them forgotten on the day, victims/witnesses are then faced with all of their alleged abusers. In some cases the reaction of this unexpected situation makes it either impossible for the victim to continue to give evidence or in some cases, the reaction creates the illusion of an unreliable witness and the case is withdrawn.

In Nottingham there is a Specialist Domestic Violence Court with Victim Support and young witness service which works particularly well.

There is a critical need to develop the use of Expert Witnesses, in order for the court to understand the pathology of the children and young people who have experienced rape and/or sexual violence. Understanding sexual exploitation, the controls used and how victims can appear as “willing/consenting” is crucial to tackling sexual exploitation and creating an environment where those hearing the cases can be made aware of all the complexities. It is essential we understand the “bad character” references and applications made and what the impact is for a victim/witness and its relevance to being a victim/witness of sexual exploitation.

It is essential to have specially trained crown prosecutors, magistrates and judges dealing with cases of sexual exploitation. It is also clear that many of the signs and symptoms of sexual exploitation mirror those of trafficked victims. We are seeing more cases of trafficking within the UK but many of the young people who are either not seen as or have not been identified as trafficked victims through the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) process demonstrate the same symptoms and distresses as sexually exploited victims.

Therefore we need our crown prosecutors, magistrates and judges to be trained not just in sexual exploitation but trafficking too. This would then also apply to Advocates. The advocate’s toolkit is being launched in April and has one specifically for Children and Young People.

In order to understand sexual exploitation and trafficking within the UK it would be extremely useful to see juries being given an awareness session on some of the complexities before the trail begins.

Implementation of Section 28 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 which allows for pre recorded pre trial cross examination via video link would assist in managing the situation where there are multiple defendants and therefore cross examination is usually by a number of barristers. Questions for cross examination submitted and done remotely in a child friendly environment would assist in not keeping children waiting in court unnecessarily and avoid long delays.

Ensuring young people have access to their ABE interview before trial (not on trial day!) to help refresh their memory and prepare them for cross examination would be of great assistance, it may be many months since they conducted the interview and may have been very anxious at the time. Therefore clarity on what was said and time to digest this would be beneficial to the young people. It is also important to allow for pre-court visits and explain the process and allow the young person to practice remote links, etc. before attending on the actual day, this requires courts to be more flexible in meeting the child’s needs.

We need to appropriately utilise remote links more than we do presently—young people being able to give evidence via video link without being in the court room in the presence of their abusers—therefore reducing anxiety of attending court and also providing them with a child friendly space if there are delays and adjournments rather than a court.

Sheila Taylor
NWG Network

Amanda Naylor
Victim Support

Prepared 29th January 2014