The girl forced to wait two years for justice after a sexual assault | Society

The girl forced to wait two years for justice after a sexual assault | Society

Lawyers say cuts to police and the CPS mean long delays in youth courts are no longer unusual

The girl forced to wait two years for justice after a sexual assault | Society
Official youth court guidelines require justice to be done as quickly as possible. Photograph: Alamy

More than two years had passed by the time the teenager stood, trembling and tearful, in the witness box at Manchester youth court. Raising her shaking right hand, the girl swore a simple six-word oath recited by children in courts across England and Wales: “I promise to tell the truth.”

The girl then cried her way through an hour of testimony about the night she was sexually assaulted by a close friend, who sat across the courtroom from her. It was the first time she had seen him since the night two summers ago when he had sexually assaulted her as she slept.

She was 16 when it happened, she explained, and had been at the boy’s house for a sleepover with another male friend. They had chatted, smoked cannabis and relaxed before she fell asleep on a beanbag between the two boys. But when she woke up, she felt “strange”, she said. She had been molested in her sleep.

In cross-examination, the girl broke down. She was questioned about smoking cannabis, about “behavioural issues” at school, how many blankets were on the beanbag, and whether she had heard rumours at the time about the boy touching other girls inappropriately. The suggestion, said the defendant’s barrister, Tim Hopley, was that she had simply “made it all up”.

Children in the dock is an investigation into the youth justice system in England and Wales, which in 2018 saw 26,881 children aged 10-17 cautioned or convicted of crimes ranging from shoplifting and joyriding to rape and robbery.

No other EU country puts such young children on trial. Most other nations do not use an adversarial system which can see children separated from their parents and lawyers via bulletproof glass in what is essentially an adult courtroom with a different sign on the door.

Officially, the focus in youth courts is on rehabilitation, tackling the underlying causes of youth offending. But although there has been an 88% drop in the number of children cautioned or convicted since 2007, reoffending rates have increased. Just over 40% of children who go to court reoffend within a year; for those sent to youth custody, that figure rises to 71.6%.

Children who end up in trouble now are disproportionately likely to be of black, Asian or minority ethnicity. They are vastly more likely to be in care and they are extremely likely to have ADHD, autism spectrum disorders and communication difficulties. This series examines how the court system deals with these vulnerable children and explores whether there is a better way to break the cycle of offending and help them build productive and fulfilling lives.

It was August 2019 and the victim was being questioned about the minutiae of a night in July 2017 that she was desperate to forget. She had told her mother and the police about the assault straight away. She was taking medication for her mental health, the court was told, and she spoke slowly with long, tearful pauses.

After a three-day trial, the district judge James Hatton found the boy guilty of sexual assault. He was given a supervised community order, told to carry out 180 hours of unpaid work, pay £280 costs to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and a £20 victim surcharge.

Barristers said a two-year delay in bringing a case to trial was no longer unusual for some offences heard in the youth court, despite official guidelines requiring justice to be done as quickly as possible. The judiciary’s youth courts handbook states: “Justice delayed may be justice denied in respect of all parties, not just the child or young person.”

Only two trials were heard at Manchester youth court in the month covered by the Guardian; both cases had taken more than two years to get from arrest to trial. Cuts to the police and CPS are contributing to the delays, according to barristers who specialise in youth justice, with fewer officers and lawyers to investigate offences.

The delays are particularly problematic when it comes to children’s ability to remember key details. Research has found that younger children remember fewer details than older children and adults, potentially putting them at a huge disadvantage when giving testimony in court.

No Responses

Most from this category