Crimes against children are most often crimes against the person. In Australia, reported crimes against children have been increasing over recent years. Appearing in court as a witness may be especially traumatic for children, who may experience high levels of stress and ‘re-traumatisation’.
Since the 1980s, the problems faced by children in the court system have been recognised, including:
- giving evidence and being cross-examined
- poor perceptions of child witnesses (jurors tend to perceive child witnesses as unreliable)
- low likelihood of conviction (particularly in child sexual abuse cases).
Several initiatives have been introduced to attempt to minimise the trauma of the process for child witnesses and thereby increase the credibility of their evidence. It appears that some of these have achieved only limited success. Specific examples include:
- use of CCTV (closed circuit television) – this allows witnesses to give evidence and be cross-examined from outside the courtroom
- use of pre-recorded evidence for child witnesses – although this measure is well-supported by child witnesses and their parents, there have been several cases where pre-recorded evidence has formed the basis for an appeal
- restrictions on requiring children to give evidence at committal hearings in sexual abuse cases – the Victorian Law Reform Commission found this restriction has not had much impact in the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court, with many requests to cross-examine witnesses at committal hearings being successful
- improving interview techniques and child witness statements – includes preparing children for cross-examination, and increased training for investigative interviewers, lawyers and judiciary. Based on transcripts of police interviews, it appears that guidelines on investigative interviewing of child witnesses are not often used by interviewers; specific questions are more often used, rather than allowing a child to tell their story in their own words
- new offence categories – legislation regarding persistent sexual abuse has been narrowly interpreted by the judiciary.
The broad issues that affect the usefulness of such provisions have been identified as:
- balancing the rights of the accused with consideration for the victim
- problems with the practical application of legislative changes, for example, use of CCTV
- the impact of judicial discretion
- balancing the reduction of trauma for witnesses against attempting to increase conviction rates (however it is noted that a less traumatic process may encourage more victims to proceed to trial).
For more information about children as witnesses and complainants see the Bench Book for Children Giving Evidence in Australian Courts produced by the Australian Institute of Judicial Administration.