The sexual abuse of children is widespread throughout Canada, but is the testimony of a child enough to charge someone with a crime of sexual abuse? Sexual abuse victims who are seeking justice, and their families, should have the advice and services of a Halifax sexual abuse lawyer.

When it comes to whether or not children should be allowed to testify in court regarding claims of child sexual abuse, several questions emerge. Does the child understand the difference between truth and falsehood, and the importance of that difference in a criminal proceeding?

And will testifying trigger even more harm or trauma for the child? If you keep reading this brief discussion regarding children and their testimony in sexual abuse cases, you will find some answers to these questions, and you’ll learn more about the rights of child sexual abuse victims.

Are Younger Children More Likely to Lie?

Until the 1980s, the Canadian justice system considered children to be unreliable witnesses, but since that time, as the number of child abuse cases has increased, lawyers and judges have found that if young children are questioned properly, they are often quite reliable on the witness stand.

No research evidence suggests that young children are more apt to lie than teenagers or adults. In fact, the research indicates that younger children clearly understand that it is important to tell the truth in court – although young children may not be able to say why telling the truth is important.

Psychological research regarding the memory and suggestibility of children establishes that they are usually dependable witnesses, and that even those as young as four years old can offer details about incidents that happened a year or more earlier.

Aren’t Young Children Impressionable and Suggestible?

Since the 1980s, legal reforms in Canada have allowed more children to participate as witnesses in criminal court proceedings, and especially in sexual abuse cases, but challenges remain both in terms of protecting those children and protecting the legal rights of the accused.

For example, one major concern about children who testify in court is suggestibility. With repeated, aggressive, and misleading questions, a child’s memory can be damaged or distorted, and a child may even begin to claim memories of incidents that never actually happened.

Although adults can also have their memories distorted by repeated suggestive questions, in practice, it is children who are repeatedly asked – some might say badgered – about sexual abuse incidents by psychologists, crime investigators, lawyers, and parents.

Can Lawyers and Judges Help Children Offer Accurate Testimony?

When asked questions they don’t fully understand, young children will usually give answers based on what parts of the question they do understand, so their answers sometimes may be perceived as unresponsive or even misleading.

However, interrogation techniques have been developed that can enhance the accuracy of a child’s testimony, such as:

1. using a child’s vocabulary
2. avoiding “legalese”
3. explaining the meanings of words
4. avoiding abstract concepts

Canadian law now recognizes that even young children may provide reliable testimony and that rejecting their testimony is inappropriate and unfair. In 1997, Canada’s Supreme Court upheld the law that lets courts consider interviews with children that are video-recorded by the police.

How Has the Justice System Improved for Children?

But until recently, no support services were available to children who testify in sexual abuse cases, and there were no established provisions to accommodate these children. Testifying was sometimes traumatic for a child, and a child’s ability to testify was sometimes compromised.

Remedies have now been put in place that allow children to participate much more effectively at a criminal proceeding. If a child’s claim of sexual abuse is believable, and especially if there’s evidence to support that claim, it may be enough to charge someone with sexual abuse.

Today, Canadian law presumes a child’s testimony will take place in back of a screen or through closed-circuit television to reduce the child’s stress and to eliminate the possibility of intimidation by the presence of the alleged assailant.

Support services for child witnesses are now in place in many Canadian courts, where a trusted adult or a “support dog” may be present with the child. A child who is supported and prepared to testify is usually an effective witness and is unlikely to suffer trauma as a result of testifying.

Criminal Charges May Not Lead to Convictions

Most child sexual abuse claims are in fact true, but in a small number of cases, a child may misidentify a defendant or may fabricate an allegation in response to aggressively repeated and suggestive questioning. Children very rarely create their own fabricated sexual abuse claims.

Since the 1980s, dramatic improvements have been established in the way that the Canadian justice system deals with children, and especially when children testify in sexual abuse cases. On the other hand, true charges of child sexual abuse do not always lead to criminal convictions.

Is There Another Option for Sexual Abuse Victims?

The crown prosecutor’s office must prove the guilt of a criminal defendant beyond a reasonable doubt in order to convict, and in some cases, that will not be possible. But sexual abuse victims have another legal option.

A claim against a sexual abuser may be easier to prove in a civil court proceeding, and a victim may recover substantial compensation for injury, pain, suffering, and psychological distress.

To launch a civil case, the abuse victim (or the victim’s family) must retain a Nova Scotia sexual abuse lawyer. However, clients pay no fee to a lawyer until and unless that lawyer recovers the compensation – and wins the justice – that a sexual abuse victim needs.

When Should You Speak to a Sexual Abuse Lawyer?

Under Nova Scotia’s Limitation of Actions Act, child sexual abuse victims may sue for compensation without a deadline. The Act allows claims arising from alleged sexual misconduct incidents to be filed without a time limit – whenever a victim is ready to take action.

While a civil claim may be easier to prove than a criminal charge, if too much time has passed, even a civil claim may be difficult to prove. It’s important for an abuse victim to seek advice as early as possible from a Halifax sexual abuse claims lawyer.

In Nova Scotia, if you have been victimized by child sexual abuse, or if the victim is your child, put the law to work for you. Ask a Halifax sexual abuse lawyer to fight for the justice and compensation that you are entitled to by law. That is your right, and it’s the right thing to do.