Plea to help abused children ‘harmed by court system’

Charity Children 1st says it is increasingly concerned about the trauma experienced by child victims when they give evidence
Charity Children 1st says it is increasingly concerned about the trauma experienced by child victims when they give evidence
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NICOLA Sturgeon will this week be urged to appoint a Victims’ Commissioner amid claims that abused children are being damaged when they go through Scotland’s court system, Scotland on Sunday can reveal.

MSPs will hear evidence from children’s charities and lawyers which raises concerns about the way that abuse victims and child witnesses are dealt with when they enter the justice system.

The call for the creation of a post that will look after the interests of victims will be made by the Faculty of Advocates, the professional body representing lawyers practising at the Scottish bar.

In a submission that will go before Holyrood’s justice committee on Tuesday, the Faculty argues that Scotland should follow the example of England and Wales and appoint a Victims’ Commissioner.

South of the Border, the Victims’ Commissioner encourages good practice in the treatment of those who have fallen foul of criminals, deals with complaints and reviews the Code of Practice for victims.

The Faculty’s plea will be considered by MSPs alongside evidence from the charity Children 1st, which is growing increasingly concerned about the trauma experienced by child victims when they give evidence against their abusers.

A document prepared by the charity for Tuesday’s meeting states: “Children 1st has heard, and continues to hear first-hand through families we work with in our abuse and trauma recovery services, that the current arrangements for child victims and witnesses are often unsatisfactory, unjust and damaging to children and young people.”

Children 1st is concerned that young victims of crime are having to deal with a system that was designed for and by adults.

Work carried out by the charity suggests that child victims of crime are fearful of disclosing abuse. There is also concern about a lack of communication with children and their families.

The lengthy delays that victims have to endure before their cases are dealt with has also led to much frustration, with some children waiting as long as two years.

The Children 1st report says the court process can be “traumatising” for young victims and calls for therapeutic support to be administered as soon as possible.

It urgently recommends the use of “intermediaries” – individuals who are highly trained in child communication – to relay questions between lawyers and children during cross-examination.

The report states that intermediaries are used south of the Border and says: “Scotland is notably behind many other areas of the world to the lack of intermediaries in the current criminal justice system.”

It also recommends the establishment of a Scandinavian system known as the “Barnehus model”, which sees the use of custom-built child-friendly centres to allow children to access justice in a non-threatening environment.

The Faculty of Advocates’ submission notes that a previous attempt to establish a Victims’ Commissioner was abandoned in 2010, but argued that one was now necessary to deal with complaints and to co-ordinate the rights and obligations of the parties involved in the justice system.

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We believe that a Victims’ Commissioner would largely duplicate the role being filled by Victim Support Scotland and other victim support organisations which represent the interests of victims in Scotland. The funding needed to establish such a role would be better spent in supporting frontline services for victims.

“We appreciate the vulnerability of child witnesses and there are a number of supports available for them when giving evidence in court, including the use of screens, supporters and giving evidence via a live TV link. However, we are always open to discussion on how services can be improved.”