A girl who gave evidence in court about allegedly being sexually abused by her father has told The Independent how aggressive cross-examination left her so traumatised that the case had to be abandoned.
“Marie”, whose real name cannot be used, is now 12, but testified in court when she was just nine. She was the key witness in the trial of her father for child sex crimes – and one of three alleged victims who came forward.
Recalling the way the defence barrister spoke to her, Marie said: “It was really scary. They said I was ‘clearly lying’. Then they said: ‘Is it the truth or are you just trying to stick up for your mum?’ I felt angry and upset.”
Marie’s experience is echoed by those in countless other trials across the country, where young, vulnerable abuse victims are treated to aggressive cross-examination that can leave them traumatised. In the recent Oxford abuse trial, one of the victims was in such an emotional state during questioning that she had to halt the process repeatedly to throw up. Now judges and ministers are considering proposals to make giving evidence less traumatic for child abuse victims.
Describing her experience of being cross-examined over video link in a side room of the court, Marie says: “They took me to a tiny room with a TV screen. It wasn’t like a front room, it was very cold and blank. There was a lady I hadn’t met before and one I’d met once. I didn’t really know who they were. When I started to get upset, I was allowed to sit outside the room for five minutes and sit in a corridor on some chairs. The women comforted me, but not really.”
According to those in court, there were three times when Marie was questioned for around 20 minutes, before becoming hysterically upset and being allowed a break. After the third time, it was decided the trial had to be stopped. Her father, who denied the charges, walked free. The Crown barrister on the case said: “She was horribly, horribly affected. She just wasn’t strong enough to keep going and without her we had no case.”
Marie recalls: “On the last time, I asked for my mum and they said the trial couldn’t happen any more. I was partly relieved that I didn’t have to do it any more, but I was also upset that I wasn’t able to prove what he’d done. Looking back, I wish they’d just used a video, so I didn’t have to be there. If I could see that barrister now, I’d tell them to take more care. Even though they’ve got to defend the other person, they need to remember it’s a child they’re talking to.”
Her grandmother, who also cannot be named, said she thought Marie had “never got over” the experience. She said: “I wish to God someone could have said to me that she was going to be treated that way, then I could’ve prepared her. The judge said it was an abuse in itself, the way she was questioned.”
Marie agreed to talk about her experiences amid growing concern about the impact of aggressive interrogation. This week it emerged that girls who gave evidence at a collapsed sex grooming trial at Stafford Crown Court in 2011 were left suffering from post-traumatic stress.
One victim was cross-examined in forensic detail over 13 days about rapes she had suffered; another was told repeatedly she was “telling fibs”. When the two main defendants faced the same charges at a second trial, Judge Patrick Thomas QC, said: “The way things went last time is just so wrong that we should all be very ashamed that our justice system allowed it.”
Pre-recorded cross-examination for child abuse victims, which experts say is less upsetting than the pressure of a live court experience, was proposed in 1989 and legalised in 1999. But the law was never implemented, meaning that children continue to suffer.
The Independent understands that several judges have already expressed interest in running pilot projects using pre-recorded evidence and other child-friendly practices. Criminal barrister Sally O’Neill QC said it would be possible to introduce pre-recorded evidence: “There are facilities around that can enable this to happen, but there are resource implications. I don’t think [judges] are imaginative in the way they handle these things.”
The Ministry of Justice says it is planning to introduce new measures this summer better to protect child victims. For the first time, a new victims’ code will include a distinct section for children and young people so it is clear what they are entitled to from criminal justice agencies. The Victims minister, Helen Grant, said: “I am determined that the justice system gives every support to victims and witnesses at trial. We constantly look for new ways to support and protect vulnerable witnesses when appearing in court, including using new technology to change the way they give evidence.”
Alan Wardle, head of public affairs at the NSPCC, said: “A child doesn’t have to go into the gladiatorial arena of the court with all the stresses that brings...We’re worried people will be put off coming forward with their cases because they fear they’ll be thrown into the lion’s den in the courtroom.”
Children in the dock: Existing protections
There are some protections already in place for child witnesses during trials, but legal experts say they do not go far enough. These include getting judges and barristers to remove their wigs, and letting children give testimony via video link from an adjacent room.
Pre-recorded cross-examination for child abuse victims – which children’s charities believe is less traumatic than the pressure of live court – was first proposed in 1989 and legalised in 1999. But the law was never implemented, meaning that children continue to suffer needlessly. Pre-recorded cross-examination of child abuse victims has been used with success in Western Australia – whose legal system is very similar to ours – for more than 20 years.