Court Education for Young Witnesses: Evaluation of the Pilot Service in Aotearoa, New Zealand

Article excerpt

This article outlines the context and history of the development of the Court Education for Young Witnesses service for children who give evidence in the criminal court in New Zealand. A pilot programme in three courts was funded and implemented by the New Zealand Department for Courts (1) in 2000 along with a two-year evaluation contracted by the then Department of Courts to the authors at the Institute of Public Policy at Auckland University of Technology. This article mostly focuses on the results of the evaluation, which informed revision of the training and materials for national implementation in 2004. Overall, the evaluation of the Court Education for Young Witnesses Pilot was positive. All stakeholders interviewed, including children, defence and prosecution lawyers, were positive about the initiative. Recommendations for improving the programme included reviewing the role of the victim advisers regarding education for defence witnesses; extending the training provided; improving quality assurance mechanisms; and clarifying who should be responsible for debriefing child witnesses. Some of these recommendations have been acted on, in particular regarding the training given to victim advisers.

*********

The evaluation of the programme also highlighted weaknesses in other aspects of the criminal justice system's approach to catering for the needs of children and young people. These include long delays before and during court proceedings, inappropriate waiting facilities and poor interagency communication. The authors conclude that the Court Education for Young Witnesses service is a positive step towards lessening the stress and trauma experienced by child witnesses, thus improving children's communication with the court. However, the potential for young people to be unnecessarily distressed by their experiences as witnesses nonetheless remains.

History

Recent public debate on children as witnesses in New Zealand has focused on questioning the validity of the evidence provided by children, particularly in sex abuse cases. This has diverted attention away from initiatives designed to protect children from the trauma of having to act as court witnesses, while at the same time ensuring that they are able to provide accurate accounts of events they have experienced. This article analyses one of these initiatives--a pilot programme aimed at child witnesses, trialled by the then Department for Courts, which provides education on court procedures and processes.

New Zealand is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCROC), an international agreement which concluded a decade of initiatives within administrative and legislative circles focused on the interests of children, including the impact of criminal justice processes upon child complainants or witnesses. The United Nations has declared that childhood is entitled 'to special care and assistance' (Preamble to Convention on the Rights of the Child, General Assembly Resolution 44/25, 20 November 1989). Signatories to the Convention agree that 'In all actions concerning children ... the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration' (Article 3).

Criticism, particularly from women and Maori, has highlighted concerns about access to justice for particular groups within the community, and about difficulties experienced by many in their encounters with formal court processes. Children whose legal rights are 'often unclear' (Ludbrook, 1991, p.17) and who must typically rely upon adults to assert these rights on their behalf, are a group for whom giving evidence in court may be a particularly difficult experience. As Smith and Woodhead (1999, p. 19) note, there is concern that

   The criminal justice system, geared as it is to the
   adult world of legalistic arrangements for deciding
   upon guilt or innocence, is emotionally
   harmful to children who enter its domain. …