Victims of child sex abuse are being made to wait in the same room as their attackers ahead of legal proceedings, a new report has revealed alongside many other alleged failings within the criminal justice system.
The study, commissioned and published by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse, consulted nearly 400 victims and details a number of issues with the criminal justice system including poor communication from professionals to survivors about the court process and trial outcomes and the challenges victims face in attending court as witnesses.
While in court, victims have described "horrific" instances of being forced to stay in entrance halls or waiting rooms with their abuser, despite having been clear that they did not want to see them.
One victim said: "On the day of sentencing, I was attending under special measures to go behind a screen and read my victim personal statement. Everything was going OK, I was met at the side entrance and taken upstairs to a private room. Then eventually I was met by an elderly gentleman who led me downstairs and left me in a small passageway outside the court room, sat just yards away from my abuser. This experience broke me."
The report also revealed that two in five survivors were not given the opportunity to give evidence remotely or from behind a screen.
Chair of the APPG on Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse, Rotherham MP Sarah Champion said: "Survivors of childhood sexual abuse often have a difficult experience when attending court as a witness to the trial of their abuser. While some elements of the trial are, by their very nature, always likely to be challenging for survivors as they recount their experience of abuse, other aspects could be dramatically improved."
Of the 400 victims surveyed, 69 per cent said they were not given appropriate explanation or support when attending court as a witness.
Many also experienced delays and adjournments that were not explained, causing anxiety about whether their case would progress and practical implications for their employment and childcare arrangements.
The report highlights how victims have often seen their attacker's charges changed by the Crown Prosecution Service - sometimes immediately before trial - and often felt this was done without proper consultation and contributed to their trial.
Other survivors felt it was unfair that abusers could change their plea on the day of the trial, stating that this returned power to the abuser who was then able to frustrate the justice process for months or years while the prosecution prepared for trial.
Many also felt the sentences their abusers received were not commensurate with the crime. The inquiry found that 3,234 offenders received immediate custodial sentences for child sexual abuse offences in 2017, 628 received sentences of less than a year.
Three-quarters of survivors said they had not been informed about parole. The inquiry heard how survivors sometimes found out by accident that their abuser was living in close proximity to them without being notified by criminal justice agencies. Others discovered via the media that convicted abusers were set to be released into the community.
The report makes several key recommendations including making sure all court staff undergo mandatory training to give them basic knowledge of trauma and the impact on witnesses.
It also states that all victims of sexual violence and abuse should have an automatic right to special measures such as video links to give evidence and it should not be at a judge's discretion.
Responding to the report, a Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “Victims of child sexual abuse show immense bravery coming forward and it is vital they receive every support possible to recover from their ordeal.
“That is why we have increased funding for emotional and practical support twice this year, and the total amount for victims has nearly doubled since 2013.
“Through our Victims’ Strategy we are making improvements at every stage of the process, including reviewing eligibility for compensation and improving the court experience.”