New court pilot program helps child sex abuse victims to give evidence

New court pilot program helps child sex abuse victims to give evidence

New court pilot program helps child sex abuse victims to give evidence

Updated 2 October 2017, 20:30 AEDT

A lengthy and often traumatic court process is contributing to a shockingly low number of child abuse cases ever getting to prosecution.

It's a shocking statistic: less than 20 per cent of all reported child sexual assault incidents proceed to court.

"There's a very high attrition rate in child sexual offence cases, about 6,500 child sexual offences reported in 2015 but only 800 people prosecuted ultimately," NSW Attorney General Mark Speakman told 7.30.

For child sexual abuse victims and their families, the lengthy and often traumatic process of ensuring offenders are brought to justice can be problematic.

"Parents don't want offenders to get off scot-free," Mr Speakman said.

"But they are also concerned about whether it's worth it for their kids to go through the trauma of a court process."

But now an Australian-first pilot, aimed at reducing trauma and getting the best evidence from children, is delivering results in New South Wales courts.

Criminal justice system designed for adults not children

The program involves pre-recording children's evidence and appointing trained "witness intermediaries" who help children to understand questions and get their answers across effectively.

Since March last year more than 700 children have been through the NSW pilot program, which has 44 trained witness intermediaries.

Around half the intermediaries are speech pathologists, the rest are occupational therapists, teachers and social workers.

"A witness intermediary is not an advocate for the child," Mark Speakman said.

"A witness intermediary is an officer of the court and his or her primary duty is to assist children to give their own evidence in a way that is useful for the court."

District Court Judge Kate Traill, who presides over one of the two courts involved in the pilot, said the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

"We've had amazing results," Judge Traill told 7.30.

"I think both sides, the Crown and the defence, can see the benefit in it, and that's been the most probably heartening part of the pilot, to see how the defence bar have got on board and embraced it."

Victim testimony is crucial in child sexual abuse cases.

Prosecutors rely on it heavily because offences usually occur behind closed doors, veiled in secrecy and have no other witnesses.

For very young children and children with communication problems or disabilities, giving clear accurate evidence can be difficult.

"Our criminal justice system was designed for adults to give evidence in a formal setting in a courtroom," Judge Traill said.

"Over the course of the pilot, I've seen children that may not have ever been able to give evidence or if they did give evidence it would not have been able to be understood, it might have been unclear or just not good evidence.

"Now I've seen children with disabilities, autism, mutism, brain damaged, very young children, give evidence that have been crystal clear.

"It's very heartening to see children have a voice."

Changes could go beyond children

As well as using witness intermediaries, the pilot allows the cross examination of the child to be pre-recorded closer to the time of reporting to police, both methods were recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

"The evidence is being given in a much smaller time frame, and then a trial, if a trial is not listed for a year away, that evidence is preserved and can be played to the jury at a later stage," Judge Traill said.

Judge Traill said the pilot also allows the court to be more flexible to accommodate children's needs.

"I can take off my wig and my gown," she said.

"Some children are unfamiliar with what barristers wear, what judges wear, so we can be less intimidating.

"If we have a jury we can't do that, we'd still be wigged and gowned."

An independent review by University of New South Wales researchers has found unanimous support by stakeholders including both defence and prosecution.

"It's a three-year pilot, we're about 18 months into the pilot, and we can already see the huge difference it's made," Judge Traill said.

Mark Speakman said the NSW Government will consider extending the trial after the full review is complete.

"One possibility would be to expand this sort of system to adults with a disability, some of the children who have been involved in this process so far have developmental disabilities, cerebral palsy and other disability so we would look in the medium term to rolling it out beyond children to those with cognitive and other disabilities," he said.

"This is about making sure children are heard and the justice system is working for children."