Young witnesses are entitled to see the courtroom before the trial and to get an explanation of what is expected of them. You can ask the police about what help is available to prepare your child for court.
- All Crown, Magistrates’ and Youth Courts have a Witness Service with trained voluntary workers available to help all witnesses and their families. They can also act as child witness supporters.
- In addition, some areas and courts have special child witness supporters who act as a link between your child and the court and can help prepare your child for court.
- Local Victim Support schemes are also a useful source of help and advice to parents and carers. In cases involving young victims of child abuse, the scheme will normally be able to help (or put you in touch with someone who can help). However, they are not able to assist in cases where the defendant is a family member.
- Social services departments may offer support to young witnesses where the defendant is a family member.
My child has been asked to be a witness. Is there anything I can say or do to help?
When a child has been a victim of a crime or witness to a crime, you can reassure him or her that:
- It is right to tell the police what has happened
- A witness who tells the truth is not doing anything wrong
- A witness is not to blame for what someone else may have done
- Witnesses do an important job but they are not responsible for what the court decides.
I know my child is worried. Should I find out what's the matter?
Encourage your child to talk to you about any worries. They may not be what you think. Listen to your child and take his or her concerns seriously but try not to make more of them than is necessary. Keep to your child’s regular routine as much as possible. Here are some common fears experienced by children and young people, and some suggestions for dealing with them:
- Seeing the defendant in court - If your child is anxious about this, tell the police. Courts make special provisions for child witnesses
- Being punished or even sent to prison for having spoken about what happened - Reassure your child that the job of a witness is to tell the truth. A witness who tells the truth is not doing anything wrong and will not be punished
- Coping in court - Your child can ask the judge or magistrates for help at any time during the trial. Remind your child that it is OK to ask for a break, for example if he or she feels upset or needs to go to the toilet.
- Listening and answering - Your child should listen carefully to each question and give the answer if he or she knows it. If your child does not understand the question or cannot remember the answer, he or she must tell the judge or magistrates. Your child will not get into trouble for this. It is OK to ask for questions to be repeated.
- Worrying what to say at school or to friends - You can discuss this with your child’s teacher. Your child may find it helpful if the teacher realises that he or she is going through a difficult time. Other children do not need to know
- Worrying about what he or she said before - Your child may be worried that he or she has not told the police everything, or has told different things to different people. Your child may feel scared or confused. If this happens, reassure your child, encourage him or her to tell the truth and let the police know.
My child has been behaving differently recently. Could it be related to going to court?
It is common for witnesses to feel nervous, but some children feel so worried that it affects their everyday behaviour. Please tell the police, a teacher, social worker or child witness supporter (if your child has one) if your child:
- Is afraid or angry a lot of the time
- Feels guilty or responsible for the crime
- Shows mixed feelings towards the defendant, such as being angry with them, but is also upset that the defendant may be punished. This can happen if the defendant is a family member or a close friend
- Becomes withdrawn, aggressive or unable to concentrate at home or school
- Starts to wet the bed, doesn’t sleep properly, becomes afraid of the dark or loses their appetite
- Shows any other anxieties relating to the crime or about going to court.
I'm worried about my child. Can they have counselling while waiting to go to court?
If your child is having problems, you can discuss these with the police officer, a teacher, social worker or child witness supporter whether he or she might need some special help. Perhaps you want your child to have therapy or counselling.
Your child’s welfare is of primary importance, so it is up to you and your child to decide whether therapy is necessary. This is not a decision for the police or prosecutor. However, they must be told if the child is going to have therapy. Children’s evidence is sometimes challenged on the basis that they have received therapy before the trial.
Therapy that focuses on making the child feel more confident and on preventive work about staying safe is less likely to affect the criminal case compared to therapy that involves talking about details of the offence. The prosecutor should advise you whether a particular type of therapy may affect the criminal case. However, if you think it is in your child’s best interests to go ahead with therapy, you are entitled to make that decision.
If your child has therapy before the trial, the therapist cannot guarantee the child complete confidentiality. In certain circumstances, the therapist could be required to inform the court about sessions with the child. The therapist should discuss this with you and your child before therapy starts. Local provisions for therapeutic assistance will vary.