03 April 2019
NSPCC NI calls for measures to reduce trauma for child witnesses
Northern Ireland and representatives from the criminal justice system and
senior policy makers have called for a new series
of measures aimed at reducing the trauma for children and young people who have
to give evidence in court.
NSPCC hosted a major conference in Belfast on Friday (March 29) where
experts from child protection organisations and the legal system discussed how children and young people are treated by the courts as
witnesses and victims.
conference, Safeguarding Young Witnesses in the Criminal Justice System,
took place as the NSPCC’s innovative Young Witness Service in Northern Ireland
reaches its 20th anniversary.
Witness Service, which is majority funded by the Department of Justice, is
unique to Northern Ireland, and it provides support and assistance to children
and young people aged under 18 who have to attend court as witnesses.
NSPCC Northern Ireland staff and volunteers provide information and advice to
children – as well as their family, friends and supporters – before, during and
after the trial to help minimise the trauma of appearing in court and giving
alone (2017-18), Young Witness Service volunteers supported 496 children across
Northern Ireland and over the past five years almost 3,000 children have been
supported across crown, magistrate and youth courts. The youngest child
supported by the service in recent years was aged just three years old.
up the majority (56%) of victims of sexual crime reported to PSNI. In 2017/18 a
total of 1,936 sexual crimes against children was reported to police in
Northern Ireland. Every one of these incidents represents huge trauma for child
victims, which can often be repeated by having to give evidence in a court
Witness Service works to reduce that trauma and the NSPCC’s conference this
week will seek to identify further ways of improving the experience of young
victims and witnesses in the criminal justice system.
speaker at the conference, held at the Belfast Harbour Commissioner’s Office,
was Sir John Gillen who is currently leading the Independent Review to deliver justice in
serious sexual offence cases.
of increased reporting of sexual offences but continued
rates, the NSPCC believes the Gillen Review is a crucial opportunity for
areas covered by the review is children’s experiences in a system designed for
Service Manager at the NSPCC Young Witness Service, said: “Our conference marks
20 years of our service and celebrates the hard work of our volunteers. “But it is
vital that in order to ensure justice for our young people in Northern Ireland,
we draw upon Sir John’s final recommendations
and drive forward the need for better utilisation of special measures,
prioritising cases involving all young witnesses and address the issues around
delays and court priorities.
witnesses have already suffered abuse and harm and we need to reduce the
secondary trauma that can occur from the criminal justice process.”
John Gillen, said “Children and young people have an unqualified right to be
provided with effective protection both inside and outside the criminal justice
time has come to close the yawning gap between the vision of well-intentioned
policy on the one hand and the reality of experience on the other if that
unqualified right is to be realised.”
delegates heard from Judith Smyth, a volunteer with the Young Witness Service.
also featured key figures from the criminal justice sector including Stephen
Herron, Northern Ireland's Director of Public Prosecutions and the Chief Inspector of Criminal
Justice Brendan McGuigan.
also heard about the Lighthouse, a pioneering facility in London that offers
support to children and families who have been affected by sexual abuse.