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Courts Must Look After Children for Justice to be Done

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Children who appear in court are, almost by definition, vulnerable. They all need our help and support and at Barnardo's we strive to provide it throughout the court process.

We work with young people who have been abused and need to go to court. We also work with young people who have been in and out of the courts, supporting them and their families in family intervention projects, children's centres and parenting support services. And we provide practical support, such as publishing tools to help prepare children to be witnesses in court.

Our work with children in the courts shows us some of the weaknesses in the present system. We feel it particularly keenly around the issue of child sexual exploitation.

For me, in the UK today, sexual exploitation is the biggest hidden child protection issue for the over-10s. On a typical day this year, across the country, our services worked with 498 children who were sexually exploited. We fear this is just the tip of the iceberg. Every time a new Barnardo's service opens it is instantly inundated.

At the moment the system repeatedly fails children who are exploited. It fails them with a lack of preventative services and then it fails them with a lack of therapeutic support.

But, too often, these children are also failed by the court system itself. A system which is not making enough effort to tend to their needs and which, as a result, risks failing to deliver justice.

To support them better we need to do three simple things: firstly, make sure that young people are protected in court through better use of special measures; secondly, support young people going to court by better identifying their additional needs; and thirdly, give court professionals the skills and knowledge necessary to work with vulnerable young people.

A crucial issue for us at Barnardo's is the role that children have in child sexual exploitation cases as victims and witnesses. We have worked with children who, having been sexually exploited by multiple abusers, then find themselves aggressively cross examined by multiple barristers in the crown court which can lead to the collapse of a case if the child can't cope. Whether cases involving children are being heard in magistrates or crown courts, the victims and witnesses are just as vulnerable.

More must be done to correct the injustice of poor conviction rates in such cases. In 2009, more than 2,700 victims were identified. In that year there were only 89 convictions. But we must also put it right to ensure that victims do not get tortured twice - once by the criminals and once by the criminal justice system.

We welcome the government's undertaking in the National Action Plan to, 'continue to work with the Police, Crown Prosecution Service, judges, magistrates and voluntary agencies to ensure that young victims and witnesses are fully supported to give their best evidence in court'. The pledge that the Ministry of Justice will consider pre-trial video recorded cross-examination is also promising, as is the commitment that the Crown Prosecution Service will work to improve the effectiveness of prosecutions.

Judicial College guidance advises the agreement of ground rules on how children are to be questioned, which ought to take account of the child and their vulnerability. In reality, this rarely happens unless a registered intermediary is involved and far too often one is not.

This must change - we need to know why guidance such as this is not being followed as a matter of course and we need to make sure that the child's needs are routinely considered in the court process.

Pilot schemes set up by the Ministry of Justice and Department for Education are screening children at the point of arrest for mental health and other complex needs with a view to diverting them into appropriate services, but this is still very far from the norm.

An HMI inspection of youth offending court work showed big gaps in the understanding of individual children's needs. It is well known that many young defendants have speech, language and communication difficulties or learning difficulties and that this is a barrier to them participating properly in the court process.

Yet the inspection found no evidence that young people entering court were screened for these issues or that those in court had any way of being informed about them. Nevertheless court staff were said to be confident that solicitors would pick up any special needs - a complacency we need to eradicate.

Finally, we need to think about training. This is a particularly pressing issue as in 2009 no 48,000 children appeared as witnesses - a rise of 30 per cent in three years.

If we do not make courts responsive to children's needs, we will have weaker evidence and we will have poorer justice. Because serving justice means protecting children.