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03 April 2019

NSPCC NI calls for measures to reduce trauma for child witnesses

NSPCC 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.

The 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.

The 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.

The Young 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.

Specially-trained 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 evidence.

Last year 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. 

Children make 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 case. 

The Young 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.  

The keynote 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.

After decades of increased reporting of sexual offences but continued low conviction rates, the NSPCC believes the Gillen Review is a crucial opportunity for change.

Among the areas covered by the review is children’s experiences in a system designed for adults.

Jenni Boyce, 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. 

“Our young witnesses have already suffered abuse and harm and we need to reduce the secondary trauma that can occur from the criminal justice process.”

Sir John Gillen, said “Children and young people have an unqualified right to be provided with effective protection both inside and outside the criminal justice system.

“The 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.”

Conference delegates heard from Judith Smyth, a volunteer with the Young Witness Service.

The event 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.

Delegates also heard about the Lighthouse, a pioneering facility in London that offers support to children and families who have been affected by sexual abuse.

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