The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC), Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) have signed up to follow a protocol to expedite cases involving witnesses aged under 10.
The protocol is intended to maximise the opportunity for witnesses aged under 10 years old to provide their best evidence and minimise the stress and emotional impact of the criminal justice process. The expedition of these cases is not intended to limit victim or witness care and ‘in all cases the interests of the child should be paramount’ (paragraph 2.2).
There is not an expectation that the relevant agencies will incur additional costs to expedite cases, for instance by fast-tracking forensic submissions, unless the circumstances of the investigation make this appropriate.
The protocol applies to cases charged on or after 1 April 2015 where a witness was under the age of 10 at the time the incident was reported to the police and has provided an evidential statement or ABE interview in relation to the incident, either in support of the prosecution or defence. The timescales set out in the protocol prior to the first hearing are the same as those being used for section 28 Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999.
The police supervisor overseeing the investigation of a relevant case will ensure that an action plan is produced to expedite the investigation to a charging decision. The police will identify any potential need for an intermediary and, where such a need is identified, ensure the engagement of a registered intermediary as early as possible in the investigation and prior to the witness being interviewed. The police must consult with the CPS at an early stage of the investigation and ensure that the charging decision is clearly communicated. The protocol outlines a timetable for case preparation and management which states that any trial should be listed within 6 weeks of the first appearance in the magistrates’ court and 8 weeks of the plea in the crown court.
A protocol to minimise the stress and anxiety that might be caused to young witnesses giving evidence in criminal trial is to be welcomed. There is now a presumption that cases involving very young witnesses should be expedited, and, subject to ensuring cases are properly investigated and prepared for trial, this should be extended to all cases involving child witnesses and defendants. It will be interesting to see whether this protocol is workable in practice given the assumption expedition can be achieved without incurring additional expense.
The recognition that children going through the criminal justice process should have their need for an intermediary explored before they are interviewed is significant and is arguably a protection which should be extended to older child witnesses and suspects. This clearly would avoid unnecessary delays seeking expert and intermediary reports once a case reaches court.