The number of child witnesses appearing in criminal proceedings has increased “dramatically”, according to a new report by the Nuffield Foundation and NSPCC.
While the numbers who actually give evidence is not collected, the number called to court rose from 30,000 in 2006/2007 to 48,000 in 2008/2009 – an increase of 60 per cent in just two years.
About eight per cent of these children are less than five years old. Almost all the children give evidence for the prosecution.
However, many of these children are subjected to questioning inappropriate to their age or inappropriately asked leading questions by defence counsel, according to the report, Young witnesses in criminal proceedings.
The report is a follow-up to one in 2009, Measuring up?, which made 42 recommendations for improvement and which prompted the Ministry of Justice to draw up an action plan.
It concludes that, while there have been some improvements in policy and practice, the justice system is still failing in its commitment to enable children to give their best evidence. There are delays in taking young witness evidence, for example, and cases involving young witnesses take longer to reach trial than the norm.
Judges are failing to agree ground rules in advance about how children should be questioned, it says, and cross-examining techniques often exploit children’s developmental limitations. It calls for more training on this and for the development of a complaints procedure.
The report also highlights concerns about uneven use around England and Wales of Registered Intermediary appointments to ensure developmentally appropriate questioning of young witnesses in court, particularly in light of cuts to local CPS and police budgets.