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Child abuse - children as witnesses in criminal proceedings

This advice applies to England

This page deals with the situation where a child or young person is giving evidence in court against the person who has been prosecuted with child abuse offences.

Can a child be forced to be a witness?

If criminal proceedings are started, a child who has been abused will often have to be a witness in the court case (unless the suspect pleads guilty). If you no longer want to be a witness, you should tell the police and they will speak to the Crown Prosecution Service CPS about the case.

A child must act as a witness, even against a member of their own family, if they are served with a witness summons. However, it’s extremely unlikely that a child would be served with a witness summons.

Support

Giving evidence as a witness at court can be very scary but there is lots of help to make it easier. When you speak to the police, they will tell you all about what will happen. They have to follow the Victims’ Code .

The police will usually arrange for you to see your recorded interview before the trial and help arrange a visit to the court.  

Many Crown Courts have a child liaison officer who is responsible for liaising with the CPS about the arrangements for a child witness to attend court. These arrangements include:

  • arranging for the child to enter the court by an entrance separate from the general public (where this is possible)
  • making sure that there’s a separate waiting area for the child and whoever is with them
  • arranging for the child to have a visit to the court before the day of the trial if they want, so they are familiar with the lay-out
  • liaising with the court to minimize the time the child has to wait before giving evidence
  • organising toilet facilities and lunch arrangements.

There are child witness information packs produced to help prepare a child who is going to be a witness. If you’re a parent who thinks that the information pack may be useful, contact the police officer who is dealing with the case - they will be able to tell you how to get a copy.

Giving evidence under oath

There is a lot of help to allow people to give their best evidence in court. Before you go to court, the police will have discussed with CPS what you need to make it easier for you, and the judge will usually agree to most requests. You can find out more about these special measures on the CPS website .It’s very important that the police discuss with you how you want to give your evidence before the trial so make sure you tell them.

In most cases, you’ll have given your statement to police in a special room, and it will have been recorded on DVD or video. When you start to give evidence, the judge will speak to you by a video link and then your interview will be played to the court. The defence and the prosecutor may want to ask you more questions after the interview has been played. Some victims of child abuse want to stand in court in front of a jury and the person who has hurt or abused them. But if you don’t want to see the defendant or their family when you’re answering questions, you could ask for a screen around the witness box.

If you are 14 years or over, you may be asked to take an oath if you’ve

  • made a written statement, and
  • decided to give evidence in the court room.

You’ll be asked if you have a religious belief. If you do, you’ll be given the holy book of your faith, for example, the Bible or the Koran, in your hand and you’ll read from a card (or the card will be read for you) that you will swear that everything you say will be the truth. If you don’t have a religious belief, there’s another card where you still swear that everything you say will be the truth (this is called an affirmation). You can be prosecuted if you deliberately tell a lie in the court. The court will  presume that a child is able to give evidence, whether or not they take the oath or affirmation. If, however, it appears to the court that the child isn’t capable of giving evidence, their evidence can be discounted.

Written evidence

If you are afraid to give evidence at court (even by live television link) or to be cross-examined on video evidence, it may still be possible for you to give evidence to the court. For example, the court could agree that you give your evidence as a written statement although this will have less weight than live television evidence.

Other special rules

Other things can be done if the judge believes these would improve the quality of evidence. For example, the judge and lawyers could take off their wigs if this would make you feel more comfortable. In some cases, evidence can be given in private.

The child's anonymity

When evidence is given, it is possible for the court to be cleared of everyone except the defendant, their lawyers, interpreters and one news reporter. However, it’s very rare for the court to be cleared in this way.

Even though evidence is usually given in open court, no details of the child can be published during their lifetime, if this could lead to them being identified. This would include their name and address or their photograph. Other details can’t be published if this could lead to the child being identified. This would sometimes include the name of the defendant. The court can lift this restriction in limited circumstances.  It is more usual for a reporter to name a defendant but not state the relationship they have to the child in question.

Next steps

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