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Child And Sexual Abuse

Volume 114: debated on Wednesday 8 April 1987

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asked the Solicitor-General for Scotland how many prosecutions for offences involving child abuse and sexual abuse have been mounted in (a) sheriff's courts and (b) the High Court in each of the past four years.

These statistics are not centrally kept and cannot be obtained except at disproportionate cost.

Those who are professionally involved with the treatment of child abuse and sexual abuse cases are concerned about the selection and training of sheriffs for children's panel proof hearings. Do the Government have plans to designate a small number of sheriffs to deal with such cases, as happens with adoption cases?

That matter has not been considered. However, because of his earlier interest in child appearances in court the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that there is a Scottish Office project under way, entitled "The Child Witness". Research is continuing. That will probably cover the sort of point about which the hon. Gentleman is concerned.

Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that in cases of child abuse, in particular child sexual abuse, it is important to remember that it is the child who matters and that in the courts, and in every other way, we should make it possible for a child to give evidence in a manner that does not in any way disadvantage the child?

Yes. I think that all hon. Members appreciate that we should make every effort to ensure that the trauma that a child has experienced is not continued or revived through the consequence of a court appearance. Nevertheless, there is the conflicting requirement that those who are accused of serious crimes —and they will be serious crimes if they involve assaults on children—are entitled to a fair trial. For that reason, as part of its review of the law of evidence the Scottish Law Commission is considering how evidence might be taken from children in circumstances that would in some way or another alleviate that trauma. In the meantime, everything is being done to keep to a minimum the problems for a child who has to appear in court.

Nevertheless, the Solicitor-General must be aware that there is increasing concern among social workers in Scotland about the fact that neither the Crown nor the courts are handling cases of child abuse adequately or effectively. As for the matter that he raised — by which the hon. and learned Gentleman presumably means video evidence being given in court—does he not agree that the intense trauma of direct confrontation between the child and the molester must urgently be stopped? Furthermore, is not spouse corroboration a very considerable problem? I have in my hand a letter from a social worker who says:

"I am engaged in one such case at the moment, where the word of a four year old girl means nothing in terms of evidence, despite its detail."
The social worker goes on to say that that girl will end up in a foster home. She also asks whether, as the girl grows up, she will wonder why she was fostered while her father remained at home, and she says that she will ask whether that was just.

I readily understand why the hon. Gentleman is concerned about the position of children in court, but he has to face the fact that there is a serious dilemma. Those who appear before our courts are entitled to a fair trial. If they are convicted of the sexual assault of a child, that is a crime that we all take seriously and the courts are likely to impose a heavy penalty upon them. In those circumstances, we have to try to maintain a balance. We have to try to avoid trauma for the child, but at the same time we must try to ensure that the accused is able to present his case properly. I have already said that, in an effort to resolve these difficulties, the Scottish Law Commission is examining the matter. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the position is already in hand south of the border.