Child friendly courts: what we can learn from America

At the tender age of seven, I was faced with the prospect of having to go to court to give evidence. Fortunately, the case settled and I was spared the ordeal of going to court, but I will never forget the endless sleepless nights and distress I felt at the thought of it. The experience made me determined to do whatever I could when I was older to prevent any other child feeling this way.

I went on to study law at Queen’s University Belfast, which further ignited my passion for children’s law. In my final year, thanks to the Irish American Bar Association, I was chosen to be the 2014 extern at the Los Angeles Federal and State Courts. I also spent several weeks observing in Edmund D Edelman Children’s Court, which is a purpose-built child-sensitive courthouse.

Before the opening of this dedicated children’s court, cases involving young witnesses, particularly including allegations of sexual abuse, were heard in LA’s overcrowded criminal court, and sometimes even in trailers in the San Fernando Valley.

By contrast, the Edelman court provides an environment where children are recognised as important parties in the court process. It has bright colourful walls, smaller courtrooms, lowered judges’ benches, outdoor playgrounds, numerous displays of teddy bears, and a calm and comforting atmosphere. There are also arts and crafts activities for children in the waiting area, and the foyer has a colourful mural of 36 self-portraits by child witnesses. There are separate waiting and bathroom areas, to avoid a child coming into contact with the defendant.

As each child enters the courtroom, they are given a teddy bear to hold throughout the trial and take home with them. It is such a simple yet effective idea, and something which could easily be implemented in courts around the world, as a first step to making court rooms more child friendly.

Seeing this unique court inspired me to press for improvements in the court system for child witnesses back home in NI. I studied for a Masters in Children’s Rights (my dissertation was: Teddy Bears in Court: Assessing the Need for Child Friendly Courtrooms in NI), and volunteered for the NSPCC’s Young Witness Service, supporting children giving evidence by video link. The YWS does invaluable work and should be given greater priority within the court building so all children are aware of its services and the help it provides. In LA, the Department of Children’s Services, the Sheriff’s Department, counsellors, mediation services, private psychiatrists and psychologists, and volunteers from the child advocate’s service all have office spaces within the court. Having a range of services available under the one roof would make them more accessible to families, particularly those who may not have easy access to transport.

The Criminal Evidence (NI) Order 1999 brought in special measures for child witnesses, and although it has led to improvements in their treatment, the use of special measures is still patchy and the changes have not been as effective as was hoped. Section 15 of the 1999 Order permits children to submit a video-recording of their investigative interview as a substitute for their evidence in chief, but has still not been implemented, so although children may pre-record the first part of their evidence, they still have to participate in the traditional adversarial trial process, albeit via video link. The use of intermediaries (Section 17) is also not fully implemented yet. This was only made available in NI as a pilot in 2013. Even then, it was only available for indictable offences in the Belfast area.

Justice is a serious business and the courts must reflect that by maintaining a serious and formal atmosphere. However, cases involving children must exercise some degree of flexibility, particularly in NI where black gowns, wigs, and complex legal jargon are still a major part of the court experience. A balance must be found to ensure that courtrooms create a child-friendly atmosphere, while still communicating a serious message to offenders. If a child experiences any kind of trauma or abuse, the intimidating nature of the legal system will only intensify the harm and stress already experienced. It is our responsibility as a society to prevent the court system from potentially victimising children again.


Emma-Rose Duffy

About Emma-Rose Duffy

Emma-Rose Duffy is a trainee solicitor at Children's Law Centre, Northern Ireland and a Justice First Fellow

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