08:16, October 10 322 0 theguardian.com

2017-10-10 08:16:03
Two-year-old girl gives evidence in UK abuse case

A two-year-old girl is believed to have become the youngest person to give evidence in a UK criminal case, after her interview was recorded by a specialist court team.

The decision to involve such a young witness in a prosecution was vindicated, according to experts involved in the legal process, by the fact that the defendant in the abuse case pleaded guilty before it came to trial.

The man was sentenced this month to more than 10 years in prison for sexual offences against a child. Neither the police force involved nor the defendant has been named in order to protect the identity of the child.

The case has been highlighted by the NSPCC and child protection experts because they said it demonstrated that sexual predators who targeted very young children were wrong to believe no one would give evidence against them.

The interview was conducted by police helped by a professional from Intermediaries for Justice, an organisation that supports under-18s as well as adults with communication difficulties to give evidence for court hearings.

Speaking on behalf of Intermediaries for Justice, Dame Joyce Plotnikoff, a pioneering criminologist, said: “Offenders may target the most vulnerable in society in the belief that they won’t be able to tell what happened, so this is an important case.

“However, registered intermediaries are a scarce resource, unfortunately available to only a small proportion of those who would benefit from their services. Ministry of Justice plans to increase their numbers have stalled without explanation.”

This year, another intermediary helped a former church chorister rendered immobile by motor neurone disease to fulfil his dying wish and testify against his abuser using eye-tracking technology.

In the latest case, the young girl was interviewed by a specialist child abuse police officer, assisted by a Ministry of Justice-registered intermediary. The intermediary advised the police about the best way to question the two-year-old, who was initially reluctant to engage with unfamiliar adults and clung to her parents.

The girl began to talk to the intermediary and the police officer. Responding to simple “who”, “what” and “where” questions, she named the suspect and described what had happened, with the help of a paper figure on which she could point to parts of the body.

“Interviewing very young children is challenging but they can give very reliable and compelling evidence,” the registered intermediary said. “The key is helping the police officer to word questions that are simple enough for the child to understand.”

The intermediary helped obtain a mouth swab from the child for forensic analysis. When confronted with an officer wearing blue medical gloves, the little girl hid. The intermediary asked for everyone to be given gloves and swabs, and they played for several minutes pretending to brush their teeth. Once she was comfortable, the child gave a mouth swab without difficulty.

A police officer involved with the investigation said: “Investigating crimes against young children requires expertise. In this investigation the specialist support of the registered intermediary made sure the victim was well supported and the police interviewer understood how best to talk to the child – ultimately gathering powerful evidence of the most serious offending.”

An NSPCC spokesman said the child was “incredibly brave”. He said: “It’s hugely positive to see that she was so well supported to tell police what really happened. The NSPCC has urged the Ministry of Justice to drastically increase the availability of well-trained, independent experts to ensure justice is done.

“An independent specialist who can ensure children are questioned appropriately and their evidence is understood is as important for justice as providing an interpreter for a witness who can’t speak the language.”