Receiving therapy prior to being a witness

Many child witnesses have been traumatized by witnessing or experiencing the crime to which they will testify. Some of these children will develop emotional or behavioural problems as a result of the trauma and will be referred to child and adolescent mental health services. Treatment of these trauma-related symptoms usually involves recounting the past experiences in a therapeutic setting. At this point a conflict of interests arises between the needs of the child as a patient and as a witness. The psychotherapeutic treatment of traumatized children centres around eliciting the child's subjective truth by the therapist using a variety of means to encourage communication. Within the legal system, the child's recollection of events must be examined in a neutral setting to determine the objective truth, while the rights of both the accused and witness are protected.(2) Therapy is seen as potentially detrimental to child witnesses because of the potential for their recollections to be altered by repetition or suggestion. The very fact that a child needs psychiatric help may be used to discredit the child as a witness in the eyes of the jury.

If a child witness clearly requires psychological or psychiatric treatment and cannot wait for many months until the trial is over for the treatment to begin, mental health professional should discuss the child's needs with a representative of the legal service. In England and Wales, the Crown Prosecution Service is aware of the need for some child witnesses to begin therapy before they appear in court and, if at all possible, lawyers from this service agree to the child receiving therapeutic help. They usually instruct therapists to avoid talking in detail about the index offence. The therapist should also be prepared to be called to court themselves in order to give evidence about the nature of their work. The court will want to be satisfied that the child has not been coached by the therapist or told about information given by other witnesses.

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