Children as witnesses in Queensland
Children and underage youth are sometimes required to be witnesses in a court room. Unfortunately, in many cases, these children are the victims of the crime itself. When placed on the stand, they are subject to some quite direct, intimidating, traumatising and sometimes misleading questions which can cause further compounded trauma for a child who has recently seen or experienced a violent crime.
Given this, the legal system has put recommendations in place to protect children who are called upon as witnesses in a courtroom, as outlined below.
What does Queensland’s legal system do to protect underage witnesses?
Companion in court
The legal system believes that the child should be able to choose at least one person who may come into the courtroom and sit next to them while giving evidence. This companion is able to provide emotional support and comfort to the child, helping to reduce their anxiety.
Speaking the child’s language
It has been recommended that guidelines and training programs be developed to assist lawyers, judges, Magistrates and prosecutors when speaking with child witnesses. This includes consideration of the questioning tactics, language and tone used, as well as considering how long it is reasonable to expect a child to sit still for without a break.
Meeting and supporting the child
The prosecutor and legal representatives should take steps to meet and build rapport with the child witness ahead of the legal proceedings to minimise the process and angst on the day of the court case to prepare and present the child in the courtroom. As well as this, on the day, the child should be given the necessary assistance to give evidence. This involves explaining the process to the child, liaising with police and solicitors on behalf of the child and providing support to seek counselling services to the child and family.
Use of CCTVs
Perhaps one of the most intimidating things for a child appearing in court is when they are required to confront the accused. As such, it is strongly suggested that the child gives evidence by way of CCTV. This would not only protect the child from seeing the accused face-to-face, but it also enables the child to be seen and heard easier by the courtroom. Where CCTV equipment is not available, the court should set up privacy screens to prevent the child from becoming anxious.
Set up of the courtroom
In order to protect the child from hostile behaviour and harassment, the child witness should be placed into a private waiting room separate from the public, the defendant and the media. The court should also use its discretion to modify seating, remove wigs and gowns, exclude people from the court room and make it a space where the child feels safe and not intimidated.
While there is no strict age of when a child is competent to testify in court, a judge will typically assess that on a case-by-case basis. Regardless of the child’s age, these important steps should be taken to protect the child from the stress, anxiety and trauma of testifying in court which can be intimidating for anyone of any age, and one that can be quickly compounded if you are a victim to a crime.