Before deciding whether or not to report an abuser, it might be advisable to talk to Victims Support or to a lawyer from the ACAL to find out what your chances are and what support is available to you. Once the matter is reported to the police, they may continue to investigate, even if you change your mind. They can then force you to give evidence in court. Criminal sentences for child abuse can be anything up to life in prison depending on the ‘severity’ of the crime.
Once you are decided, you report the matter to your local police station. Ask to speak to the child protection officer. This is someone specially trained in child abuse cases and s/he will try to make this less traumatic for you. You’re entitled to take a friend with you and also to ask for a female or male officer, depending on your preference. The officer will ask you for a lot of details, including other possible victims, witnesses or other evidence you might have. You will be asked to sign this statement. You may also be asked if you want to make a statement outlining the effect the abuse has had on you. This will be taken into account when sentencing and might also help you to get some financial compensation.
The police will then investigate. They, together with the CPS may decide not to proceed at any time but you’re entitled to be told about this. The reason for this is usually that the evidence is not sufficient to secure a ‘probable’ conviction (see ‘will I succeed’). The police will question witnesses and the person accused. Your statement will be made available to the accused at some point, as will all other evidence against him/her. If at any time you feel threatened or intimidated by the accused or anyone else on his/her behalf, in connection with the proceedings, make sure to tell the police at once. Witness intimidation is a crime too.
You are not a party to the proceeding, unlike in civil law, but a witness. This is why criminal cases are always R. (the queen) v. whoever. You will not need a lawyer and you should have no legal expenses.
If the accused pleads guilty, or ‘plea bargains’, you will not have to go to court. The punishment will be decided by a judge, taking into consideration all aspects of the case, including the statement you gave to the police about the effect the abuse had on you.
If the case goes to trial, you will be told to attend. At the Crown Court, proceedings are a bit like ‘Rumpole’ – Judges and barristers will wear robes and wigs, there will be a lot of people present in court: friends and relatives, journalists, students, lawyers and members of the general public. There will be twelve people, the jury, who will decide whether the defendant is guilty or innocent. Jury members are chosen at random from the electoral register. The CPS and the lawyers for the defence have the right to challenge jurors.
You will be asked to wait outside until you give your evidence. You will then be asked to swear or affirm (depending on whether you’re religious or not) that you will tell the truth.
The CPS lawyer will then take you through your statement. S/he is ‘on your side’ but is not allowed to ask certain kinds of questions. Only answer the questions being asked, but do so as comprehensively as possible.
Next it’s the turn of the defence to cross-examine. Their job is to ‘cast doubt’ on your version of events. They may do so by trying to confuse you, make you angry etc. The best way to get through cross examination is to stick to your statement. If new things are raised and you don’t know the answer, say so, but don’t let yourself be ‘tripped up’ by questions such as: ‘Why did it take you so long to report this?’ ‘How come everyone else in your family/in the community has nothing but good to say about this person’ etc. Be prepared to answer those questions honestly but without calling other people liars or becoming angry and abusive. It’s ok to cry or to feel overwhelmed and you can always ask the judge for a break – ‘an adjournment’ – if you feel you can’t go on.
After the cross-examination, the CPS lawyer might want to ask you some questions about issues raised that where not dealt with in her/his initial examination. Answer these as best and as honestly as you can.
After re-examination, your role is over. You will be allowed to stay in court to listen to other evidence. When all evidence has been heard, the jury will go to a room to discuss and consider their verdict. They will return to the court when they have reached a decision. If the verdict is ‘not guilty’, the defendant is free to leave, if their verdict is ‘guilty’, the defence lawyer will enter a ‘plea in mitigation’. The purpose of this is to try and reduce the sentence. The judge pronounces a sentence then or reserves judgement until a probation report has been prepared.
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