Crime Victims To Pre-Record Evidence For Trials To Protect Them From Trauma

Young and vulnerable victims of horrific crimes are to be offered the chance to pre-record evidence for criminal trials in a bid to protect them from the trauma of appearing in court.

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said the new approach will be tested in Leeds, Liverpool and Kingston-upon-Thames with the intention of rolling it out across the country if it is successful.

Violin teacher Frances Andrade committed suicide after giving evidence

The 48-year-old took her life during the trial of choirmaster Michael Brewer, who was later convicted of child sex offences against Mrs Andrade when she was 14 and 15 years old.

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said: "The particularly hostile treatment of victims and witnesses in court has nothing to do with fairness or justice.

"It is simply not right that young and vulnerable victims are forced to relive the most traumatic experience they have ever had, often for days on end, when cross-examined in court.

"I am adamant we must put a stop to this, but without compromising everyone's right to a fair trial.

"So for the first time we are going to spare these victims from the aggressive and intimidating court atmosphere by making sure they can give evidence and be cross-examined before the trial starts."

Children automatically receive special measures, such as giving evidence from behind a screen or giving it via video link, and these are available to other victims and witnesses at a court's discretion.

Although judges have the power to intervene to prevent overly aggressive cross-examination and character assassinations, there are growing instances of victims being left traumatised after court cases.

There is no limit on the number of lawyers who can cross-examine a victim or witness, or on the amount of time they can be on the stand.

Victims and witnesses can also be required to discuss graphic details of crimes such as sexual abuse.

Working with the Judiciary, Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunal Service, the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Crown Prosecution Service, the Ministry of Justice is bringing Section 28 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act into force.

It will allow all children and the most vulnerable adults to escape being grilled in court, in front of an audience, by recording their cross-examination away from the highly-charged court environment.

Hilary Kay Brewer (right) and Michael Brewer (left) were convicted of child sex offences at Manchester Crown Court

The announcement comes after the head of a leading charity warned it is only a matter of time before a child witness commits suicide if nothing is done to address the adversarial culture in courtrooms.

Victim Support chief executive Javed Khan said: "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."

Commenting on the announcement, Mr Khan said: "It is vital that greater emphasis is given by the entire justice system to ensure that the needs of vulnerable victims are fully taken into account.

"We have long been calling for greater use of special measures in court.

"Repeated, aggressive, cross-examination of vulnerable witnesses cannot be the best way to obtain sound, accurate evidence - which is ultimately so vital in bringing offenders to justice.

"And most importantly it is not the right way to protect vulnerable victims and witnesses.

"We welcome measures like pre-recorded interviewing in safe spaces. In addition, we firmly believe that vulnerable and intimidated witnesses must be offered specialist help and support throughout the justice process. "That is why we are calling for specialist witness services for children and young people to be extended from seven trial sites to all parts of England and Wales.

"Witness and victims are entitled to a fair trial as well as defendants. Today's announcement goes a long way to rebalance the system but still more needs to be done."

NSPCC chief executive Peter Wanless said: "Today is a good day for our justice system and for children.

"The NSPCC has long been campaigning for this change to be introduced to help protect vulnerable young witnesses from the immense pressure of the courtroom.

"This pilot is one step towards making courts child friendly and starting to remove the gladiatorial element of cross-examination.

"It could also mean young people won't have to testify years after they come forward allowing victims to start to rebuild their lives earlier.

"Many young victims of abuse tell us how the current process can be almost as horrific as the abuse itself.

"Cases have been dropped because the witnesses were too vulnerable to cope with the aggressive cross-examination in court by several different barristers.

"This means we have sometimes effectively removed the right to justice from a section of society, making them even more vulnerable to being targeted.

"It builds on good work from the CPS and within police forces across the country to improve the process from detection to conviction.

"However, even if rolled out nationally, this needs to be seen as part of a wider root and branch review of how courts deal with these cases as it won't be a panacea on its own."

The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, said: "I welcome the Lord Chancellor's announcement about implementation of section 28 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, enabling children and vulnerable witnesses to be cross-examined in advance of the case coming to trial.

"This was first suggested by the committee chaired by Judge Pigot QC in 1989 and the judiciary has long supported its implementation.

"I spoke in support of this most recently in March.

"I am delighted that a pilot scheme will now be run and look forward to full implementation across the country in due course."

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