Court `worse than rape' for girl victim

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CHILDREN ARE being failed by the legal system with many forced to testify in a hostile and insensitive court atmosphere, it was claimed yesterday.

A conference hosted by Childline, the children's charity, and addressed by Hillary Clinton and Cherie Booth QC, heard that one 12-year-old girl felt her experience of court was "worse" than her horrific rape by a gang of boys.

Other stories, shown in a 10-minute film, told how sex offenders were not being prosecuted by the police, despite proof of child abuse being obtained in civil courts.

Ms Booth told the conference of lawyers, police and representatives of the country's leading childcare agencies that the legal system had to be changed to prevent child victims feeling abused by it.

The Prime Minister's wife said it was time to start listening more carefully to children. "All of us hear time and time again stories of children saying their experience of the court process was as bad, if not worse, than their abuse."

Tony Butler, the Chief Constable of Gloucestershire, who has worked closely with the Home Office on issues relating to child abuse and sex offender prosecutions, said barristers used "deliberate strategies to mislead and confuse" child witnesses. On one occasion, a barrister made a child take a 10-minute spelling test before giving evidence. "At the end of the test the child was completely done in," said Mr Butler. "If the police had used [similar tactics] they would be ruled inadmissible."

Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, acknowledged that action needed to be taken, but his suggestion that the Youth and Criminal Justice Bill currently before Parliament would solve the problem was not accepted by the conference.

The extension of the use of videotaped interviews, and a presumption that children giving live evidence will be allowed to do so via a television link, did not go far enough. Judge Paul Collins told the conference that these measures needed to be compulsory instead of being left to the discretion of the court. "There is a real risk that they will be applied inconsistently ... cases need to be dealt with as soon as possible so that children can get on with their lives," he said.

Barbara Joel-Esam, a lawyer with the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, said: "It is intolerable that children can be offered no certainty about whether they will have to appear in public as witnesses at the trial. This Bill could leave children stuck in a lottery where everything depends on where the case is heard."