Courts 'fail in abuse cases'

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The Independent Online
LAWYERS and magistrates are failing to protect children from abuse because of inadequate court procedures and case preparation, according to research published yesterday.

Young victims of emotional cruelty and neglect, who show no signs of physical abuse, are most likely to be left unprotected at home, a study by the University of Sheffield law department says.

Interviews with 115 police officers, social workers and medical professionals show many believe legal restraints are hampering their efforts on behalf of children at risk. Two out of three respondents could recall incidents in which children had come to harm because the law did not give youngsters protection at a sufficiently early stage. Some reported cases in which children clearly required legal protection, but where no action was taken through lack of evidence to satisfy a court.

Many felt unable to act in cases of neglect or emotional cruelty because of magistrates' lack of understanding.

More than half claimed they did not have adequate opportunity to discuss giving evidence with lawyers and felt 'inadequately prepared' for court hearings.

Six out of ten of the professionals interviewed were unclear about their legal powers.

The report's recommendations include a call for magistrates and witnesses to be given training in court procedures and for courts to become more user-friendly. It will be sent to the Home Office, the Department of Health and the Law Commission, the Government's law reform watchdog.