'Gaping hole' in video provision
A children's charity has slammed the "astonishing and appalling" imbalance in the availability of video connections for young witnesses to give evidence in court compared to suspected criminals.
The NSPCC 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.
Chief executive of the charity Peter Wanless said: "If remote links are good enough for those accused of crimes then why on earth are they not available for all child witnesses? This imbalance in the judicial system is both astonishing and appalling.
"Everyone seems to agree that the young victims of crime should get every assistance possible when giving their evidence yet here we have a gaping hole in the system that needs to be plugged immediately.
"The courts are rightly using remote video links from prisons to save money and improve security. But this technology should also be used to help vulnerable children give evidence. This will reduce the intense emotional strain they are put under and allow them to give their best evidence - which is in the interests of justice."
According to figures from the Ministry of Justice, around 50,000 court hearings take place per year where the suspect appears via video link from prison.
The NSPCC said that in 2012/13 249 children and vulnerable witnesses were allowed to use special rooms in police stations to give evidence remotely and avoid the stress of attending a court building.
Ministry of Justice figures from the previous year showed that around 21,000 children and young people had attended court as witnesses or alleged victims.
ChildLine, which is run by the NSPCC, was contacted 1,200 times last year by children who were worried about giving evidence in court.
The charity said that one girl told its counsellors that she had been self-harming and the thought of giving evidence against her abuser in court "makes me want to run and hide".
A mother whose sons had to give evidence against their violent father, said: " The boys were really worried about coming face to face with their father in the court building. Even just turning down a corridor and actually seeing him face to face was more of an anxiety than the questioning."
Adam Pemberton, assistant chief executive of Victim Support, said that children should be allowed to pre-record their evidence if they want to.
"No child should be in court, unless they want to be. But the options available to them need to go further than a video link away from the court, for example, being able to record their testimony soon after the crime has been committed," he said.
"Young witnesses tell us that they find court intimidating to the point that they are scared of going into the witness box. We do everything we can to reassure them, as without their best quality evidence, the case against a criminal could fall apart.
"They should be able to choose to give their testimony to the court in whichever way that means they are not traumatised by the experience."
Victims' Minister Mike Penning said: "We must do everything we can to support child witnesses and help them give their best possible evidence to bring offenders to justice. That's why we are trialling pre-recorded cross-examination to allow young and vulnerable witnesses to give evidence away from what can be an aggressive court room atmosphere.
"This is on top of a range of measures to help reduce the anxiety of attending court, including giving evidence behind a screen or the use of a registered intermediary, which has increased significantly over recent years.
"We have also brought in a new and improved Victims' Code with a section specially written to support young people. We will continue to explore ways we can use remote links and new technology to help witnesses give evidence from outside the court building."