THE BLOG

Could Aggressive Treatment of Vulnerable Witnesses Be About to Change?

07/06/2013 17:20 BST | Updated 07/08/2013 10:12 BST

The aggressive questioning of vulnerable witnesses in court was exposed again this week with solicitor general Oliver Heald calling for change at the dispatch box. Now policing and criminal justice minister Damian Green is to head a taskforce to examine the issues.

It's good to know that the stance I have long held on this issue is being listened to by our political class. Urgent change is needed without delay.

We've all heard stories of children - many of them victims of horrific sex crimes - being thrown to the wolves in court and it needs to stop.

All too often, Victim Support caseworkers give me stories of innocent children leaving court in tears after being grilled on the most harrowing of topics.

Many young sex-grooming witnesses are already being assessed as being at high risk of self-harm. Let's heed the warning signs before it is too late. Are we really waiting for a child witness to kill themselves before we accept that the adversarial culture of our courtrooms is wrong?

If things stay the same I fear it's only a matter of time before the worst happens. Victim Support experience tells me we're not far from that happening.

Take the 10-year-old sex abuse victim who was a nervous wreck at a retrial because he knew he'd have to repeat the ordeal he'd already been put through. Or the child forced to read aloud graphic details of her stepfather's sex attack on her that had little or no bearing on the case. Others are accused of lying, having been interrogated for days.

One observer suggested to me it was as if barristers had gone on an ego trip in a case involving a particularly vile familial rape.

Too often innocent children are treated like they are pawns in a game of chess. They are not the ones on trial and they must not be made to feel like they are.

One story that haunts me is that of Frances Andrade, a 48-year-old violin teacher who was the victim of sexual abuse as a child. She tragically killed herself in January after being cross examined at Manchester Crown Court.

We must do everything in our power to ensure this doesn't happen again. I call again for compulsory training for defence barristers on how to handle prosecution witnesses.

I know many incredible judges and barristers who carefully balance victim needs with the fair administration of justice. But we simply don't see the consistency we need across the board.

I have personally written to the Judicial College that trains our judges, offering direct access to our volunteers and staff who every year support more than 240,000 witnesses in all magistrates' and crown courts in England and Wales. They are the ones who know what works and what doesn't.

I've extended that offer to include access to our seven specialist Young Witness Service centres across the country. They provide specialist free, independent and confidential support for children and teenagers during court cases.

Our volunteers and staff at these centres do a wonderful job and we want to replicate those seven centres across the whole of England and Wales. The young and most vulnerable deserve a service that is tailored to their unique needs.

It stands to reason the right to be treated fairly in court should not be limited to defendants - it must be extended to victims and witnesses as well.

Surely this is a key yardstick by which any civilised society must be measured and the sooner our criminal justice system recognises it the better.