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7 August 2013

Children who have been sexually abused are never to blame for what has happened to them

The courts must do better when vulnerable young people are in their care, writes the NSPCC's Peter Wanless

By Peter Wanless

Today there is a media storm around the case of a sex offender spared a prison sentence after his 13 year old victim was said by the judge to have been “egging him on” and described as “predatory” during the trial.

There was only one predator in this case and that was the sex offender who pleaded guilty to sexual activity with a child. Thankfully the Attorney General is now reviewing the sentence but there is a wider issue here about the culture of the legal profession and how child sexual abuse victims are treated.

Let’s get one thing straight from the start. Children who have been sexually abused are never to blame for what has happened to them. No exceptions. This outdated view that children are complicit in their abuse must be stamped out. Clearly people accused of sexual offences against children need to get a fair trial. But that should not mean that there is no place for sensitivity and compassion when the alleged victims are children. It’s already hard enough for children to come forward and report sexual abuse and I am deeply concerned that any young people hearing about the comments made in this case will be even less likely to speak out if they have suffered abuse. Being cross examined in court, particularly about issues of a sexual nature, would be incredibly distressing for anyone. For children who have suffered immense trauma it can be just too much to take.

Time after time we hear of rape and sexual assault trials where children who are giving evidence are subjected to hostile cross-examination, which adds in one mother’s words “a whole heap of extra abuse” on top of what the child has already suffered. And this week it was reported that a 17 year old girl tried to kill herself during the trial of 10 men from Buckinghamshire accused of sexually exploiting her from the age of 11.

There has to be a better way – and there is.

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For some time the NSPCC has been calling for changes to the culture and practice of the courtroom. The Government is now introducing a pilot of pre-recorded cross-examination that would happen before the trial and would reduce stress and delays for young witnesses. I am also pleased that the Lord Chief Justice has said he will introduce a select pool of judges with specialist training for complex child abuse cases. But not all child abuse cases are complex and more must be done now to change the treatment of vulnerable witnesses. We want to see compulsory training for barristers and judges, and for judges to use the powers and tools they already have to limit the nature and length of cross examination. All legal advocates – defence and prosecution – should be trained in how to appropriately question child witnesses and know that the welfare of the child is of primary concern for the court. We would like to see the Crown Prosecution Service and the independent Bar take this forward as soon as possible.

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In the midst of this important and often complex debate let’s not forget that at the heart of the matter are children. And their welfare must not be sacrificed in the pursuit of justice.