Anguish of the young witnesses

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Children going to court as victims or witnesses still face unnecessarily distressing ordeals, despite the introduction of improvements such as video links, the Victim Support charity said yesterday.

Barbara Mills QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions, backed the charity's call for national guidelines on the preparation of child witnesses after research showed many were subjected to long waits to testify, inadequate support and inappropriate cross-examination.

An evaluation of the Witness Service support scheme shows many children are given no preparation before attending court. A quarter of children in sexual cases and 66 per cent in non-sexual cases did not receive a pre-trial visit to familiarise them with the court, while the Child Witness Pack, published by children's charities and endorsed by the Lord Chancellor's Department, was only used for 25 per cent of children. In one of the courts studied in detail, a judge had no knowledge of the pack and tried to stop its use.

At the launch of the study, Helen Reeves, Victim Support's director, said that offenders committing serious crimes against children were escaping conviction because of the failings in the system.

The research, which examined the experience of 1,000 children called as witnesses to 26 crown courts and spotlights a number of breaches of the Government's Victims Charter, found that one in three children had to wait more than four hours at court before being called to give evidence or be dismissed. One in five waited more than a day and 334 of the children in the study never gave evidence on the listed day, causing unnecessary trauma.

In 11 per cent of cases, applications for children to testify outside the courtroom by closed-circuit television link were refused; 80 per cent of children who did testify via the link were denied any support other than a court usher in the link room. Victim Support wants a "supporter" to sit with children in link rooms and says defence fears that child witnesses would be "coached" on their evidence have been overblown.