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Confusion reigns as media says a two-year-old gave evidence in criminal proceedings

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Legal history made?

Readers have been left scratching their heads over potentially misleading reports suggesting a two-year-old girl has made legal history by giving evidence in a criminal case.

Various nationals have reported that the young girl in question, who cannot be named, gave evidence in an abuse case by way of a recorded interview. The defendant was sentenced to more than a decade in prison for sexual offences against a child.

However, lawyers were quick to point out that the defendant in this case had pleaded guilty, meaning there was no criminal trial. Anonymous blogger and advocate Secret Barrister told Legal Cheek the ‘giving evidence’ media reports are “slightly misleading” because of this. And Jaime Hamilton, a tenant at Nine St John Street, said:

Commenting on the story is very difficult. At what stage did the defendant plead? Was there other evidence such as DNA? The child may have given an account. That account may have been served (initial disclosure can often include material not relied upon for trial). But we don’t know if, for example, there had been a ruling by the court to determine whether the child was a competent witness. It is a story about obtaining an account from a very young child but that is a long way from saying this child ‘gave evidence’.

The legal issue here is competence to be a witness, which is covered by the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999. This states children of any age are potentially competent to testify in criminal cases, though it seems this may be an unpopular opinion. At the time of writing, of the 200 respondents who have taken part in our Twitter poll, which asks ‘Should two-year-old children ever be allowed to give evidence in criminal cases?’, nearly three quarters have said no.

Regardless, it’s actually becoming more common for children to give evidence. Examples of young children doing so in the past decade include the 2007 case of R v Dean, in which a five-year-old girl spoke via video link about claims she’d been raped aged three. In 2010, the evidence of a four-and-a-half-year-old was accepted in another rape case and in 2011, a three-year-old boy who had suffered life threatening injuries when a man stamped on his stomach gave evidence in the case. The defendant was sentenced to 13 years in prison.

That said, a child will not be competent to give evidence in criminal proceedings if the court decides they’re not able to understand questions put to them and give answers to these questions that can be understood. At 24 months, it’s anticipated half a child’s speech is understandable and that they can make short sentences — it’s for the court to decide competence on a case-by-case basis.

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9 Comments

Anonymous

I love apples. I also like piano music.

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Anonymous

The 2 year old is probably more competent than the average LC commenters.

(22)(0)

Anonymous

Innit

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Anonymous

Commenters? I don’t think that’s a word Katie.

(1)(6)

Trumpenkreig

#MAGA #melania2024

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Anonymous

It’s not that confusing. The reporting made clear that the defendant pleaded guilty before trial but after the girl gave her evidence. Of course the girl would not have been giving live evidence. If she recorded her evidence and it was filed before the trial it is correct to say that she gave evidence in the case, notwithstanding that she didn’t give evidence at trial nor that the trial never actually went ahead.

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Anonymous

I think we don’t know the actual age of the child – so references to ’24 months’ are not helpful. A child of 35 months would still be ‘2’, and that’s quite a different proposition.

While I can understand many people believing that a child of two would not be a competent witness, I think we have to put that in context. Can they give basic information that is relevant, can that information be relied upon? If the answers are ‘yes’ and ‘yes’, then the child is a competent witness.

I’m sure a judge is able to direct a jury as to when they believe evidence should not be considered.

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Anonymous

I think it would have been an ABE (achieving best evidence) interview, during the initial police investigation. A transcript would have been on the Digital Case System and the disc served, probably prior to the Plea and Trial Preparation Hearing.

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Anonymous

I am sure it would have been at least ordered that the disc be served before the PTPH. Not so sure whether the CPS would have managed getting it from A to B. It’s up in the air whether the Defence would have bothered asking for an adjournment, or just advised based on the summary of evidence. Crown Court Hearings pay a flat fee.

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Comments are closed.