The need for specialisation in sexual violence trials involving children

The need for specialisation in sexual violence trials involving children


As children and other vulnerable members of society, including people with mental disability and other bodily disabilities are becoming more and more the target of violent sexual crimes, the need for specialist prosecutors and judges has arisen.

It was for this reason that the judiciary invited child witness expert Professor Karen Müller from the Institute for Child Witness Research and Training to address it during the recently concluded First National Judicial Conference, held at a local hotel in the capital.

According to Müller the term ‘specialised’, when seen in the context of services provided by the courts, refers to those areas where the focus of the work conducted in those particular courts is limited to a pre-determined range of issues. The rationale for the provision of these services, she said, is to ensure that people deemed to have the appropriate skills and attitudes could be employed in courts that have definitive social policy objectives, such as providing access to justice for vulnerable groups, the transformation of labour relations, the rehabilitation of drug offenders, to name but a few.

However, Müller said, the terminology associated with specialisation is diverse and often engenders confusion. “The terms ‘specialisation’, ‘specialist skills’, ‘specialists’, ‘specialist courts’, ‘dedicated courts’, and ‘specialist services’ are used interchangeably,” she said, adding that “exacerbating the confusion is the fact that internationally there is no agreement on what is meant by the term ‘specialisation’.” Some jurisdictions for instance, she said, use the term ‘specialist prosecutor’ to refer to those individuals who have undergone training in child development and the dynamics of sexual assault, while others regard prosecutors who have spent a considerable amount of time in these courts as ‘specialist prosecutors’.

Some jurisdictions again define a ‘specialist court’ as one that has the necessary electronic equipment, while others require that ‘specialist courts’ only hear specific types of cases, the expert explained.

It does seem, Müller said, that there seems to be general agreement internationally that specialist means more than introducing technology to assist complainants and designating special courtrooms, but also includes key systematic changes which have produced cultural change within the courtroom.

“The key feature that been found to bring about this cultural change is the specialisation of personnel, namely prosecutors and judges, who have undergone specialists training,” she further explained.

Müller said that at the basis of the concept of specialised services is the philosophy of providing a holistic response to a particular social policy objective, which extends beyond the courtroom and which is presupposed upon specialised knowledge.

Since currently there is no agreement internationally as to the meaning of the specialisation terms, she added, services have been classified as specialist where special arrangements for identifying whether a case falls within the category of sexual offences was made. Other features that can be regarded as contributing to specialisation are case-flow management of sexual offence cases to prevent delays; specific legislation and reform to laws; specific electronic equipment to assist the process of testifying; special courtroom located outside the main courtroom from which complainants can testify; separate access to the courtroom so as to prevent contact between the accused and the complainant; availability of a waiting room and play area; presence of a victim support person; development of a core group of specialist presiding officers, who are trained in child development and the dynamics of sexual assault; establishment of a specialist prosecutorial unit that undergoes training in child development and the dynamics of sexual assault; establishment of a specialised unit within the police that undergoes training in child development and the dynamics of sexual assault; ongoing training for prosecutors and presiding officers; provision of counselling support for prosecutors and presiding officers to prevent burnout; use of intermediaries to translate questions from the court to the child in a developmentally-appropriate manner; specialist forensic report writing and assessments for court; research and monitoring; specialist witness services such as the provision of court preparation for complainants; the provision of pre- and post-trial counselling; introduction of diversion and rehabilitation programmes for offenders; continued monitoring of sex offenders after conviction, using sex offender registers or child protection prohibition orders; and data collection method for evaluating the court’s effectiveness.



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