TV's Esther rallying cry to protect children
Charlotte Newton TELEVISION presenter and journalist Esther Rantzen has called on eminent lawyers in Hampstead and Highgate to create a fairer legal system for child abuse victims. Ms Rantzen, who this week confirmed her intention to run for Parliament, s
TELEVISION presenter and journalist Esther Rantzen has called on eminent lawyers in Hampstead and Highgate to create a fairer legal system for child abuse victims.
Ms Rantzen, who this week confirmed her intention to run for Parliament, spoke to the Ham&High after one of the men involved in Baby P's death was convicted of raping a two-year-old girl.
The man, 32, was sentenced to life imprisonment last Friday for the rape, which took place in north London in 2007. The victim, now aged four, made legal history by becoming the youngest witness ever to give evidence at the Old Bailey, where she was cross examined by defence lawyers via a video link.
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Ms Rantzen, founder of ChildLine, said the case exposed serious flaws in the legal system and has called for the UK to adopt an inquisitorial system - where an independent inquisitor asks the child questions.
"We have some of the most eminent lawyers in Hampstead," Ms Rantzen said. "They have seen the injustices in our courts. I want them to join together to create a better legal system which treats children appropriately.
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"Our current legal system has been described as an abuser's charter because the adversarial system silences a child into blank incomprehension, or tears. So many cases are dropped and then the abuser walks free."
Bernard Richmond QC, who defended the 32-year-old rapist and cross-examined the victim, conceded that he too would favour a more "relaxed" system of corroborating a child's evidence.
Speaking at the Old Bailey last Thursday, Mr Richmond said: "It is not for me to determine what system can be used in cross-examining children. One can only hope that a more appropriate system will come into play."
Ms Rantzen, however, was more emphatic. She said: "The girl should not have been cross examined nor asked to define truth and lies. It's an absurd way to try to protect a child.
"I know of many cases which were simply dropped because the child was too badly injured or young to go through the adversarial system.
"Every time a child abuser walks free you are potentially condemning a whole new generation of children to abuse."
Ms Rantzen, 68, told how she founded ChildLine in 1986. She suggested the BBC should create Childwatch, a programme about child abuse to try and detect children at risk.
Viewers were asked if they would take part in the survey in an edition of That's Life! and prompted such a strong response that a helpline was opened after the programme.
This led to a helpline specifically for children in danger or distress, which was opened throughout the year, 24/7, and then launch on the programme.
ChildLine joined the NSPCC in February 2006. Last year, the helpline took 500,000 calls from children across the UK.
Ms Rantzen was also instrumental in campaigning for video links to be used in cases of alleged abuse so that children would not have to face their alleged attackers in court.
Ms Rantzen said: "I learned of all different kinds of cruelty through That's Life! and my work with Child Line, but every case is horrific.
"The video link was already in use in the States and it seemed an obvious first step. But there are still some judges who will not allow screens and some courts where the facilities do not exist to use it.