Supporting your child in court

Understand some of the terminology and processes involved in court.

As a parent of a child who has suffered child exploitation, it is understandable that you will want to see the exploiters of the crime arrested and prosecuted. That said, most parents will find the prospect of their child attending court as a witness somewhat daunting. For many parents and their children, it will be their first experience of the courtroom, and your child will be particularly bewildered by some aspect of the legal process. Giving evidence and being subjected to cross examination is particularly harrowing for young people, but even more so given the sexual nature of their testimony and the intimidation they may face from the accused exploiters.

This guide aims to make your family’s journey as smooth as possible by preparing your expectations for the weeks or months ahead.

Explaining the legal process

Most children understand the idea of a promise to tell the truth, both what is meant by a ‘promise’ and by the ‘truth’. Conversely, most children know what a ‘lie’ is. They also broadly understand that prison is an unpleasant place people go to when they have committed a crime. But beyond that, their concepts of the legal system are confused and often distorted by television

The following section will help you explain key roles in the court in child-appropriate language. The more familiar both you and your child are with the personnel and their roles, the more equipped you will both feel.

Explaining the Crown Prosecution Service

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) is responsible for prosecuting criminal cases investigated by the police in England and Wales. The purpose of a criminal prosecution is to find out if someone has broken the law and appropriately sentence them. CPS lawyers who are called Crown Prosecutors, apply two key tests when deciding whether a person should be prosecuted:

1. There must be sufficient evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction

2. It must be in the public interest to prosecute

Following a review of the evidence, the CPS selects the most appropriate charge to reflect the seriousness and extent of what is called ‘offending’. The CPS acts on behalf of the public interest, not on behalf of victims or victim’s families. It is important that both you as parents understand this and that your child has some understanding of ‘public interest’ as well.

Offences could be ‘either way offences’ or ‘indictment only offences’. Indictment only offences can only be tried at Crown courts. Either way offences can be tried either at Crown courts (on indictment) or at Magistrates’ courts (summary offences). Crimes such as rape or murder are indictment only offences and can only be tried at Crown courts.

Explaining the judge

The judge is the ‘boss’ of the courtroom and makes sure everybody follows the rules. She/he wants two things:

1. For witnesses to show up for court

2. For witnesses to answer the questions truthfully

So a witness’s job is come to court to tell the judge the truth about what happened. The judge sees them as the ‘expert’ on what they remember about what happened. An expert is a person who knows a lot about something. The judge’s role is to decide on all matters of the law. The judge will listen to the child testifying and also listen to other witnesses so he or she can have all the important information. A jury decides on matter of fact.

Explaining evidence as a puzzle

Children sometimes overestimate their roles in a court outcome, feeling overly responsible for what happens to the accused. That is why they often react badly when a case in a not guilty verdict. It’s as if they didn’t do a good enough job or that the judge did not believe them. Use a puzzle as a visual metaphor for explaining their role in the judge’s final decision. Tell them that the judge can only make good decisions about whether somebody has done something wrong if they have all the information from all the witnesses, even the accused if he or she wants to testify. Evidence in court is like pieces of a puzzle. To demonstrate, take a picture or sheet of paper and rip it into six or eight pieces. Lay out the pieces one by one. The police contribute one piece and the other witnesses give other pieces. The child is responsible only for one piece of the entire puzzle.

Explaining what a jury does

A child may see the jury as part of the ‘audience’ in the courtroom, people who can ask questions, or people who give the judge advice. You can explain it like this: a jury is just 12 ordinary people chosen by lawyers (the prosecution barrister and the defence barrister) to help the judge. They listen to what everybody says and decide if the accused is guilty or not guilty.

Explaining the role of the prosecution barrister

The person in court who helps the child say what happened is called a Crown Prosecutor. If we use the word ‘Crown, it’s because he or she works for the Queen and the Queen wears a crown. (If you know the name of the prosecutor for the case, ensure the child knows what it is). This person’s job is to ask all the right questions to help the child tell the judge what happened. They ask the child questions first. They type of questions they ask are like the things somebody thinks about when writing a short story: who was there, when did that happen, where did that happen, what happened and some ‘how’ questions. Here’s an example. You told me you saw a movie on Saturday. Who was with you? How did you get there? How long did that take? Understanding how they will be questioned will make the child feel more at ease rather than attacked.

Explaining the role of the defence barrister

The defence barrister is the accused adviser. You could point out to your child that even though they may seem ‘mean’, they are here to do a job which is to ‘test the truth’ and to make sure that the child and all the other witnesses are telling the truth. This is an important job: to make sure innocent people don’t get convicted by mistake. (Children easily understand the idea of being blamed for something they didn’t do). They may not seem as friendly as the prosecutor, but it’s not because they don’t like the child. They ask the child questions about what happened but they might ask different questions because some of them might be a bit confusing. The defence barrister may use a word that the child has never heard before. Explain to your child that if they don’t understand the question then they should say to the defence barrister that they don’t understand the question. The defence barrister will ask it again in a simpler way. Tell your child never to answer a question that they don’t understand.

Explaining the concept of cross-examination

Explain to your child that they tell the judge what happened by answering questions from the barristers. The prosecution barrister asks questions first, then the defence barrister asks similar questions in a slightly diferent way. Explain that this is called cross-examination and is not to be confused with medical examinations or forensic examinations they may have seen on television. Tell your child that by asking some of the same questions as the prosecutor, the defence barrister wants to see if the child says the same thing. But make sure that they understand the defence barrister can ask different types of questions, which are refered to as ‘leading questions’. Those questions might start out like this: ‘I suggest that…’? Or ‘Couldn’t it be that this is what really happened…?’ Or ‘Would you agree with me that…’ Or ‘could that maybe have been a dream?’ Or ‘Didn’t’ they say before that…?’ Explain that the most important thing is to listen very carefully to the questions because the child is the expert on what actually happened.

Oaths or affirmations

Taking an oath is making a promise to God with your hand on a religious book to tell the truth. Let the child know that if they don’t believe in God, they can make an affirmation which is a promise to tell the truth.

Victim impact statement (VIS)

A VIS is a way for your child to tell the judge how what happened affected them and how it made them feel. When someone writes a VIS, the prosecutor gets a copy of it and the judge gets a copy. The CPS must give a copy to the defence lawyer, so that means that the accused can read what has been written.

‘Beyond reasonable doubt’

This is a tricky concept to explain but it’s important to try. Otherwise, your child may see an acquittal as a matter of not being believed. For a jury to find an accused ‘guilty’, the prosecutor must prove to a very high level that the offender is guilty, feeling ‘sure’ this is the case. It’s like needing to get 95% in an exam. If the prosecutor can prove it to the 80% level, that is very high proof, but still not enough.

Guilty and not guilty

Once all the evidence from all the witnesses has been said aloud in court, the jury has all the pieces of the puzzle and makes a decision whether the accused is ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’. You should explain to your child what these mean in the following terms:

  • Guilty means that the jury is sure that the accused did something wrong and will be sentence by the court.
  • When an accused is found ‘not guilty’, maybe the jury was 80% sure but that is not enough. ‘Not guilty’ does not mean innocent and it does not mean that people didn’t believe the child. The fact that he or she was charged is remembered by the police. A not guilty verdict can often be seen by the child as a very negative outcome. It is important, therefore, to prepare your child for such an outcome, and to always explain this outcome in a more positive manner. You could stress how brave your child has been and how proud you are of them for standing up and telling the truth. Lots of people believed them but the evidence was not strong enough to reach the high level of proof required by the court.

The emphasis here is to make sure your child is prepared for both outcomes and that either remains a positive experience.

Explaining sentencing

The aims of sentencing are concerned with the reason or objective or the judge (or politician) for handing down a particular sentence, eg what they hope to achieve by giving a prison sentence.

The preferred choice of sentence and the aim of that sentence come in and out of favour, often depending on who the current government is, pressure from the media and events in society itself. The aims of sentencing consider the wider sentence and take into consideration the victim, the offender and society as a whole.

The criminal Justice Act 2003 sets out the aims of sentencing for adult offenders and the court should have regard to:

  • Punishment of the offenders
  • Reduction of crime through deterrence
  • Reform and rehabilitation of offenders
  • The protection of the public
  • The making of reparation by offenders to the victims of their crimes.

Reparation (also called Restitution)

This involves the offender paying compensation to the victim. Sometimes offenders are required to carry to out unpaid work in the community. This can be seen as reparation to society as a whole.

Types of sentence for adult offenders

Custodial sentences

Murder carries a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment (this means the judge has no discretion on the sentence he/she imposes) for offenders over the age of 18. For some serious violent or sexual offence, the court can deem the offender to be dangerous and impose and indeterminate sentence. The offender must prove they are no longer a danger to the public before they can be released. For other offences a prison sentence up to the maximum for the particular offence may be imposed on offenders over the age of 18.

Custody Plus

A prison sentence of less than 12 months, known as Custody Plus, will result in the offender serving part of the time in prison and the remainder out on licence. The licence will have certain conditions attached to it that he must fulfil if he is to remain out of prison (breaking the conditions of his licence may lead to him being recalled to prison).

Minimum sentence

Offenders convicted for a third time of an offence of Class A drug trafficking must be sentenced to a minimum sentencing of 7 years’ imprisonment.

Offenders convicted for a third time of an offence of burglary must be sentenced to a minimum of 3 years’ imprisonment.

Community Orders

Section 177 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 gives the court the power to impose one or more of the following requirements on offenders aged 16 or over:

  • Unpaid work
  • An activity requirement
  • A programme requirement
  • A prohibited activity requirement
  • Curfew requirement
  • An exclusion requirement
  • Residence requirement
  • Mental health treatment requirement
  • Drug rehabilitation requirement*
  • Alcohol treatment requirement*
  • A supervision requirement
  • An attendance centre requirement

The above community orders are impossible if the offender is 25 or over. If the offender is below 25 they have to agree to take part, otherwise another sentence will be given.

*The offender must be willing to take part if this requirement is to be imposed.

Other types of sentence

A fine may be imposed by the court and there is no limit to the amount the crown court can impose. The maximum fine in the magistrates’ court is £5,000 (£20,000 for Health and Safety offences).

Absolute and Conditional Discharge

A conditional discharge is where the offender is released on condition that they do not re-offend. A period may be for up to 3 years.

An absolute discharge is where no conditions are attached and the offender is released.

Anti-social Behavioural Orders (ASBOs)

These can be imposed by the court where an individual has behaved in an anti-social manner. The types of behaviour deemed as anti-social include: harassment, being frequently drunk (mostly students), being frequently high on drugs, causing a nuisance in a public place or to neighbours. Under the terms of an ASBO an individual can be ordered not to go to a certain place or ordered not to take part in certain activities. If an ASBO is broken it becomes a criminal matter and the offender can then be sentenced in the criminal courts.

Types of sentences for young offenders

Custodial sentences

Offenders under 18 who are convicted of murder are detained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure.

Offenders aged 18 – 20 may serve their sentence in a prison or a Young Offender Institution.

Offenders aged 12 – 17 may be sentenced to a Detention and Training Order for a specified period of between 4 and 24 months. These orders can only be imposed on persistent offenders if under the age of 15.


There are limits on the amount of fines for young offenders:

  • 10 – 13 year olds – maximum of £250
  • 14 – 17 year olds – maximum of £1,000

Other sentences available for Young Offenders

  • A supervision order for up to 3 years
  • An Action Plan which lasts for 3 months
  • A Reparation Order for a maximum of 24 hours’ work
  • A reprimand or a warning
  • Referral to a Young Offenders’ Team

Addressing Specific Concerns

Ivison Trust parent support workers have identified eight common anxieties experienced by children or teenagers when testifying in case of child sexual exploitation.

Seeing the accused again

Most families known to Ivison Trust say that this is the most common and the most intense court-related worry among children. By the time of a preliminary hearing or trial, it may have been many months since your child last saw the accused. Seeing the accused again may trigger a stress reaction in some children, including during an unexpected encounter inside, or while entering, the court building. Efforts to shield a child from the accused, including screens or video link, are premised on the knowledge that some children find it so stressful that they may not be able to testify at all. We suggest it is best not to ask the child if they are worried about seeing the accused, but to ask if there is anyone in particular they are worried about seeing in court. A discussion on this issue will help you decide what extra support your child may require from victim support and/or the police.

You should also prepare your child for the possibility of a large presence of defendants’ families and friends in the dock. They may be responsible for excessive coughing or noises during your child’s testimony. You could also warn your child that the accused may act arrogantly in court; remind them that it is part of an ‘act’ and a deliberate ploy to mislead people – just as they misled your child.

Not being believed

Fear of disbelief is a major impediment to disclosure. Children assume that the word of an adult will always be taken over the word of a child. Indeed, by entering a not guilty verdict, the accused has (apparently) denied the child’s version of events. Worries about disbelief are entwined with worries about the accused lying and being believed. Emphasise that your child’s job is not to convince the judge that they are telling the truth. Their job is to tell the truth.

Being in the public eye

A courtroom is a public place and few witnesses relish the public exposure that testifying entails. Children are no different. People have a generally negative view of court as a place where bad people have to go and somewhere you want to avoid. A sense of stigma can attach even to victims of crime. One advantage of testifying via video link is to minimise this feeling (although your child should be made aware that spectators in court can see them). Neither your name nor your child’s can be printed in the newspaper or aired on the radio, as the media is banned from doing so due to your child’s age or the sexual nature of the offence.  However, complete anonymity is not always possible, as a friend may be a witness or people within the community or schools may be aware of what has happened.  Parents can tell their child that they have nothing to be ashamed of when another person makes a bad choice and hurts them.

Being shouted at or told off

The US TV show ‘Judge Judy’ may mislead some British children that a judge may shout at witnesses. They must be assured that our legal system is different, but that they may perceive the defence barrister as mean or unkind.  Again, it’s important to stress that it is not personal to the child, but their duty to ensure that the truth is not mixed up and innocent people do not get convicted.  Your child may also think the accused can physically attack them in court. You should reassure them that courts have a range of protective features, such as security-controlled entry, security staff in all courtrooms, separate waiting rooms and the use of video link to give evidence. Ask your family liaison officer or Ivison Trust support worker for a pre-court visit and be sure to point out these features.

Feeling responsible for unwanted court outcomes

As a parent, it may be difficult to acknowledge that your child may still have mixed feelings about the accused. They may even secretly want to continue the ‘relationship’ with them, whilst conversely hoping for a conviction. Similarly, they may feel guilty if the accused is sentenced to imprisonment.  Re-frame the responsibility as failing to the accused – when a person breaks the law, they must accept the consequences – and also with decision makers in the legal process, especially the judge.

Getting mixed up or forgetting things

It’s normal that people forget things that happened a long time ago, especially small details like what they were wearing or what time is was. A child who has forgotten something can simply say, ‘I don’t remember.’ Witnesses will have an opportunity to review a written or video-recorded police statement. The goal here is to ‘refresh’ the memory.  Teens often prefer to be alone when they watch a video-recorded statement. On the other hand, a young child may have difficulty attending to the statement without an adult there to keep them focused. If that is the case, find a supportive adult who is not expected to be a witness.

Crying or getting upset when testifying

Reassure your child that it is normal to get upset when you remember sad or scary things. That is why you see a tissue box near where witnesses sit. Nobody will think badly of them if they cry or get upset.

Talking about sex and genitals in public

One of the biggest challenges to both you and your child is the sexual content of your child’s testimony. Practice is the key here. If it is too difficult for you as a parent to do this, then seek help from another adult, such as a teacher, nurse or your family liaison officer. Your child needs to understand that nothing they say will shock or surprise a judge. Judges hear about these things every day, from many, many children.

Your child may or may not know the correct words for genitals. You may want to explain that these are just names for part of the body that we generally do not use in daily conversation. A useful example may be the word ‘elbow’ or ‘funny bone’. The correct name of the bone is ‘ulna’, but we would not use that term in day-to-day speech. Encourage your child to practise saying the words out loud to themselves when they are alone so that they feel more comfortable saying them. You could explain to them that using these words in court tells the judge exactly what part of the body they are talking about and that helps him or her to make a good decision. If they do not feel comfortable using the correct words, then you can encourage them to use the words they have been taught to use in your family. Tell your child that they may be asked if they know any other words for that part of the body, or they may be asked to point to that part of the body.

On the day

It may well be that the run-up to the trial is more stressful than the day itself. Nonetheless, there are some simple things you can do to help make the day as smoothly as possible.

Bring your own snacks and activities

A case may be called first in the morning or be last on the list – so be prepared for a potentially lengthy wait. Some family waiting areas may have books, puzzles and DVDs but you should bring your own activities to keep your child amused as well (bear in mind stimulating activities like some video games may be counter-productive). It is a good idea to bring a packed lunch so you don’t risk running into the accused in the cafeteria. Again, avoid sugary drinks and snacks that may make your child over-excitable or nauseous.

Arrive early and leave immediately after testimony

Arrange to meet your witness support officer or family liaison officer early so that you can enter the building in advance of the accused and his or her supporters.

A case rarely concludes immediately after the testimony of a child, so the verdict or other decision typically comes in later in the day, or even on a subsequent day. Some families stay and watch the entire case, but most are anxious to leave the courthouse once their child has testified. If you leave before the case concludes, you will probably not run into the accused in the corridor or outside the building.

‘In order to prevent any possibility of her coming into contact with any of the offenders, our daughter gave evidence by live video-link in a different building. She was escorted by police officers into and out of that building by an entrance not normally accessible by the public.’ – Ivison Trust parent

Be prepared for possible media coverage

Ivison Trust has a specialist media officer who can advise you on how to handle the media. You can ask her to get in touch with your police force’s press office and discuss how they intend to handle coverage of the case. Remember that the media are prevented of naming your or your child by law. If you wish to give interviews to the press, we strongly advise you to speak to our media officer, who will mediate with journalists to ensure your anonymity.

‘There were some horribly lurid headlines in the coverage of our daughter’s case, such as ‘sex slave’ or ‘child prostitute.’ This was quite upsetting, but on the whole the press coverage was broadly sympathetic to her as the victim, and praised her bravery in giving evidence against the men who exploited her.’ – Ivison Trust parent