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Justice for Frances Andrade: A Success or a Failure?

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Giving evidence in court can be traumatic. At Victim Support we hear this from witnesses and victims of crime, time and time again. In some cases where there is aggressive cross examination, some have even said it is more distressing than the crime itself.

Courts have to find the truth and that isn't always easy. And some witnesses do lie. But leaving them devastated by the process isn't about delivering justice.

The suicide of sexual abuse victim Frances Andrade is a clear and very sad reminder of just how true this is. It's been reported that the 48 year-old mother of four was brutally cross examined and denied counselling until the end of the trial - by which time irreversible damage had been done to her, her family and loved ones.

The conflicting accounts from the CPS, police and Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper mean that we don't yet know exactly what happened.

But the Attorney General Dominic Grieve is satisfied the CPS acted in line with guidance and the Home Secretary has ruled out an official review of court police procedures.

Yet the fact remains that a woman (who otherwise had a seemingly good life) was so devastated after her ordeal in court that she decided to take her own life.

Is this reflective of a criminal justice system that prioritises the victim - the person who the crime was committed against in the first place, and for who the fight for justice is being carried out?

Although the justice system can record this case as a successful outcome because a conviction has been achieved, the real outcome for the victim is an abject failure and a tragedy because of the poor handling of the case.

The welfare of victims should be the top priority of the justice system. When victims are left to suffer without help it can compromise justice as people will think twice about coming forward at all. Some may decide the price is too high and refuse to participate - which is a failure for justice, the 'system' and for society, and offenders will walk free.

The police, the CPS and the judiciary must do more to identify what help vulnerable victims need and make sure they get it. Access to specially trained counsellors, pre-trial visits and special measures in court, such as giving evidence by live link are all important. They each make a difference to how much the victim is protected from feelIng re-victimised.

We also want judges to ensure that victims and witnesses are treated with care and consideration in court. Judges should consistently use their power to intervene to prevent inappropriate questioning, where a victim is repeatedly asked to relive their worst nightmares. Too many victims tell us that they end up feeling they are on trial rather than the offender.

I remember the Milly Dowler case a few years ago when Levi Bellfield was convicted of the 13 year-old girl's murder. Yes there was a guilty verdict, but again the victim's family were aggressively cross examined with the defence introducing highly personal (and embarrassing) information.

Afterwards, the Milly Dowler family attacked the justice system for their "truly horrifying" experience during the trial, admitting that they had paid "too high a price" for conviction.

Nearly two years later it is both poignant and shameful that nothing has changed. The criminal justice system needs to learn its lessons and put them into action - rather than just give lip service to what needs to be done. How many times have we heard the rhetoric of 'victims are at the heart of the criminal justice system'?

The tragedy of Frances Andrade must be a wake up call to us all that we aren't there yet.

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