8.4 Child Witnesses in Criminal Prosecution and Pre-Trial Therapy Support
This chapter is currently under review - May 2020
Definition of Child Witness Support
A service available to children and young people required to give evidence in criminal proceedings, either in relation to their own abuse, or as a witness to crimes committed against another person.
This service will seek both to prepare the witness in practical terms to give evidence in criminal proceedings, and provide support to witnesses during the period leading up to any trial, which is bound to be a time of high anxiety and stress.
The service will be offered to every child who is a victim of an offence that is subject to criminal proceedings or is to be called as a witness at such proceedings.
In such cases the police will make referrals to the Young Witness Service, who will then liaise with Children's social care to identify a support worker to undertake the appropriate work with the witness.
All staff from Children's Social Care, the Young Witness Service, and police officers involved in supporting children through the court process, must have undergone the appropriate training as provided by each agency. They must have been evaluated to be competent in providing the service.
Pre-Trial Therapy Support
Identifying children who wish to receive therapy
Where a child is a witness in criminal proceedings and therapy is being considered for that child or young person, contact should be made with the police officer in charge of the case before therapy commences. This will allow the Crown Prosecution Service to be contacted to ascertain whether the therapy will have any bearing on the criminal trial. It should however be stressed that the child's needs for therapy will always be paramount even if this is likely to prejudice the criminal case.
Children involved in Child Protection Conferences
For those children who are subject to the Child Protection Conference process, it will be the responsibility of the CPC to identify therapeutic needs and make the necessary link to the police if they are not in attendance at the Conference.
Children Not Involved in Child Protection Conferences
In these cases the child witness supporter will highlight the need for parents/carers to inform them if they are considering therapy for their child in advance of it commencing. The child witness supporter will then alert the officer in charge of the case so that negotiations may take place with the police.
There is a clear distinction between the use of therapy by qualified practitioners, and the formal preparation of a witness to give evidence in court.
Therapeutic work can broadly be placed in two categories: Counselling and Psychotherapy.
Counselling will address a number of issues, including:
Psychotherapy will address issues including:
Therapists may work within the Health Service, Children's social care, the voluntary sector or privately.
When it has been agreed that such services will be provided to a child witness, it is imperative that the therapist/counsellor has had the appropriate training for the type of work to be undertaken. Membership of an appropriate professional body or other recognised competence may be an indication of their suitability.
In addition they should have a clear understanding of the effects of abuse on children, together with knowledge of the rules of evidence, and how these may be affected by any therapy provided to a child. They should have read the practice guidanceProvision of Therapy for Child Witnesses Prior to a Criminal Trial, published by the Home Office, CPS and the DoH.
All people who work with children before a criminal trial must be aware of the possible impact of their work upon subsequent evidence in the trial. Some types of therapeutic work are more likely to undermine the credibility of a child witness than others. Any discussion by a child of their evidence during therapy must carefully be considered. This could lead to allegations of coaching, and the likely failure of the criminal case, and should be avoided if at all possible.
A balance must be struck between the needs of the child and the resultant impact of any therapy on the criminal proceedings. However, where this balance becomes critical, the best interests of the child are paramount.
Before commencing therapy, the therapist should be made aware of any pending criminal proceedings.
Although the decision to commence therapy with a child is not one for the police or CPS, they should be informed that any therapy is proposed or has been undertaken. The CPS will then be able to advise, if requested, on the likely impact of the therapy on the evidence.
If there is a demonstrable need for therapeutic work that is likely to jeopardise the criminal proceedings, consideration may need to be given to abandoning those proceedings in the interests of the child's well being.
If during the course of any therapy, new allegations of abuse are made, or any information is received that is inconsistent with the original allegation, the Police or Children's Social Care must be informed.
In all cases where an allegation of abuse is received prior to any therapy taking place, the evidence should be recorded by means of a video recorded interview before any therapy commences. Where an allegation arises from the therapy itself, then any decision as to how to proceed should be made during a strategy meeting, which should include the therapist.
It is vital that a comprehensive record is made of any therapeutic work undertaken, and that any such records are preserved.
The Police have a duty to reveal the existence of any information or evidence that may undermine the prosecution case or assist the defence. Accordingly, any records kept by therapists may become part of the evidence in the case. At any time during the proceedings the police, CPS, defence or the Court, may make a request for these records. Therapists should consider obtaining legal advice before releasing any such material.
Therapists may be called as witnesses themselves in any proceedings, and should be prepared for this possibility.
In light of this, therapists should not guarantee confidentiality in advance of any therapeutic work with a child. An understanding should be reached at the outset with a child and their carers about the requirement for any records to be disclosed.