Victims of a Tory knee-jerk reaction?

13th February 1998 at 00:00
No one who witnessed the sight in Court 12 of four terrified little boys sneaking bemused glances at the packed public gallery, or the sounds of a frightened girl crying for her mother during three days of cross examination via a video link, was in any doubt that all five children in the Old Bailey rape trial were in some way victims.

But how, everyone wanted to know, did they get there at all?

After the murder of James Bulger by two 11-year-old boys in 1993 and the wave of public revulsion which followed, the Conservative Government lowered the age of criminal responsibility from 14 to 10. This means that anyone over 10 charged with a serious offence such as rape or murder must automatically be tried in a Crown Court.

Caroline Hamilton, director of the Children's Legal Centre, says: "Once the Crown Prosecution Service took the decision to charge with rape it followed there was a possibility of a custodial sentence, which followed the case had to be heard in Crown Court. The Tories knee-jerked after the Bulger trial without really thinking the consequences through."

More than 90 per cent of people agree that children giving evidence should have special facilities, according to a new survey by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Nearly two- thirds of those surveyed believe courts frighten and confuse children and half believe they intimidate. The charity is calling for the establishment of a special children's court to deal with both criminal and civil matters, as in Scotland.

The NSPCC is also urging the Government to allow child witnesses to give evidence via pre-recorded video links.

A spokesperson said: "One of the problems with any trial is it can take months, sometimes a year, to come to court. Children need to give evidence as soon as possible after the crime."

Even worse, says the charity, is that children awaiting trial are often denied counselling or therapy as the defence could use it to raise doubts about witness credibility. It is believed the girl in this case - who said she was possessed by demons and lit fires to get attention - is now receiving help but did not have any pre-trial.

The NSPCC says it can only make sure children visit the court beforehand, and know what the procedure will be and where they will sit.

The Howard League for Penal Reform is concerned by Labour's plan to revoke the medieval law of Doli Incapax, a rule which presumes that children under the age of 14 are incapable of evil. The rule recognises that while children should know the difference between right or wrong, they may not understand the consequences and seriousness of their actions.

Spokesperson Fran Russell says: "If you are mentally ill you may be judged unfit for trial because you do not understand. But the Government says that a 10-year-old, even one with special educational needs, could understand. I seriously doubt any of those boys had any real idea of what was happening to them."

Nadene Ghouri

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