Nicola is continuing to push for greater support for vulnerable and young witnesses in court, raising it on the floor of the House and in a face to face meeting with the Justice Secretary.
This formed part of her well known Childhood Lost campaign, and Nicola is respected across the House for her commitment to protecting vulnerable victims and witnesses following the harrowing Operation Bullfinch in her constituency. Her campaign had much success; creating Civil Prevention Orders to enable police to intervene much earlier to protect victims of child sexual exploitation, which have been praised by police, parents and children’s charities.
Over recent years we have seen some encouraging progress in reforming court processes for victims: a revised Victims’ Code which is coming into force on 16 November, strengthened protections for victims and witnesses in the court room, a doubling of the number of Registered Intermediaries to support vulnerable witnesses, greater opportunities to give evidence away from court using remote link facilities, and other special measures including a screen in the courtroom or live-link from another room into the courtroom.
However, research by the NSPCC has found that 99% of child witnesses still have to give their evidence in a court building. A Freedom of Information request was sent to all 43 police forces in England and Wales, of which 35 responded, and it has shown that only three forces are currently using remote facilities. Further, at least half of young witnesses report being unable to understand questions that they are asked at in court, rising to 90% of under 10’s.
The Pigot Review of the court system was carried out more than 25 years ago now, citing that more should be made of digital technologies. With great advances in technologies over recent years, there is much more to be done to provide protection for vulnerable witnesses which, in turn, will allow better evidence to be provided and prevent criminal cases from falling through.
Nicola believes we can learn from the examples in countries overseas, for example the US, and raised this with the Justice Secretary, Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, in the Commons before meeting with him in person to discuss further.
On 03 November, she asked the following:
Does the Minister agree that specialist courts for crimes with high reoffending rates like drugs and sexual offences can offer a number of benefits if implemented correctly, not only by reducing those reoffending rates but also by more sensitive handling of vulnerable witnesses, which can lead to better evidence and fewer cases collapsing?
Shailesh Vara MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Justice, responded:
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that specialist courts can lead to a reduction in reoffending. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor recently visited the United States, where there is evidence that reoffending does diminish with specialist courts. We will be taking on board whatever we can learn to put into practice in the UK.
In her meeting with the Lord Chancellor on 11 November, Nicola set out how we can learn from specialist courts in the US along with the ‘Children’s House’ model in Iceland. This would allow a wrap around model of care and support for the victim, whereby the designated intermediary, a social worker, the investigating police officer, along with court professionals and lawyers to be under one roof working with the victim to ensure they are able to give the best possible evidence, and of course without having to see the offender in the intimidating court room environment which discourages so many witnesses from coming forward.
We are also seeing slow progress on specialist training for judges, and such training can only serve to improve the situation for victims therefore Nicola raised this too.
The Justice Secretary will be following up Nicola in due course, and Nicola will be keeping the pressure up.
Nicola says: I was encouraged to see the Justice Secretary visiting Texas to see their specialist drugs courts and taking an interest in how specialist court models can help to reduce reoffending.
Sexual abuse cases have some of the highest rates of reoffending and of course they also involve very vulnerable, and often young, witnesses. Therefore we should be doing all we can to make sure we tailor our court and support systems to the needs of the victim and allow them to give the best possible evidence in a suitable environment.
This is the case I have made to the Ministry of Justice, and I look forward to discussing it further as the Justice Secretary works to reform the court system.