MP backs more use of video to protect children in court

AGHAST ... Emma Lewell-Buck.
AGHAST ... Emma Lewell-Buck.

SOUTH Shields MP Emma Lewell-Buck has backed a children charity’s plea for young or vulnerable witnesses to be given wider access to video evidence in courtrooms.

The NSPCC has slammed the “astonishing and appalling” imbalance of video connections for young witnesses to give evidence in court compared with suspected criminals.

It has called for all children to be offered the facility – which is available to thousands of prisoners – in order to avoid the ordeal of having to go to court in person to give evidence.

As a former social worker Mrs Lewell Buck attended court hearings during her work, and often found the atmosphere “intimidating”.

She recently asked a question in the House of Commons about the quality of training judges and barristers receive to enable them to deal with young or vulnerable witnesses in an appropriate way.

And she has signed the NSPCC’s petition calling for more video access.

She said: “Courts are intimidating places for anyone. I remember as a social worker having to attend court many times. It was rarely an enjoyable experience.

“I was not alone in dreading giving evidence, many of my colleagues felt the same – the buildings were always intimidating, you could be left waiting for hours, the complex legal jargon could leave you completely confused and the cross examinations were always volatile.

“It always made me think how much worse it would be if I wasn’t an adult – if I wasn’t a professional, used to the court environment and with colleagues and management to support me. What if I were a child, who had already suffered the trauma of abuse, being forced to relive it all again?

“Since then, I have been left aghast by cases where children in this situation aren’t given proper support, where they have been accused of lying, cross-examined repeatedly for hours on end or asked wholly inappropriate questions for their age. And what’s more, they have been made to come to a court building to give their evidence where they might face seeing their abuser.

Mrs Lewell-Buck, who before becoming town MP was a Labour councillor on South Tyneside Council and the authority’s lead member for Adult Social Care, added: “In all my work, I’ve always been clear that the welfare of a child must come first.

“Too often, it feels like this isn’t happening in our criminal justice system. Children who have been victims of, or witnesses to, abuse and other crimes need first and foremost to be protected from further harm, not subjected to a second traumatisation.

“Now, as an MP, I’m keen to make sure the needs of these children are heard in Parliament, and are kept at the top of the Government’s agenda.

“That’s why I recently asked the Victims Minister in Parliament what he made of comments by Judge Rook that all judges and lawyers taking on sexual offence cases should be required to undertake specialist and accredited training, so that vulnerable witnesses are questioned in a fair and appropriate way.

“From my time as a social worker, I know the importance of communicating effectively with children. Questioning children needs to be recognised for what it is – a specialist skill, requiring an understanding and appreciation of their development and communication needs.

“I have also written to the Victims Minister asking him to consider other ways the Government can improve support for children giving evidence.”

Twitter: @shieldsgazpaul