Move launched to spare victims trauma of courtroom combat

Victims and witnesses involved in trials at a Yorkshire court will be among the first in the country to give evidence before proceedings start in a pilot launched today which has been heralded as a landmark for the criminal justice system.

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Leeds Crown Court is one of three being used to trial a Government initiative designed to protect vulnerable people involved in the judicial process. The scheme will allow them to give evidence and be cross-examined without facing aggressive questioning in open court.

People who may find it difficult to give their best possible evidence in a courtroom environment and all child victims will be considered for pre-trial cross-examination in the pilot areas, which also include Liverpool and Kingston-upon-Thames.

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Following a visit to Kingston-upon-Thames Crown Court to see how it would work in practice, Victims’ Minister Damian Green said: “It is crucial that people who have experienced or reported horrific crimes are given the highest possible level of protection and support. I am determined that their needs will be put first.

“It is vital the right to a fair trial is upheld. As part of that, if someone is accused of a crime they should be brought to justice as swiftly as possible.

“If you have experienced a horrendous crime, giving evidence in the pressured environment of a live courtroom, in front of the jury and the public gallery, can be intimidating and perhaps too much to ask.

“That’s why we are trying a new approach, the first of its kind, which prioritises the victim. I hope this test will allow pre-trial cross-examination to take place more widely.”

Under previous rules, victims and witnesses could only be cross-examined in open court, although those deemed vulnerable could give evidence from behind a screen or via video link. If successful, the six-month trial would then be rolled out nationwide.

The assistant chief executive at Victim Support, Adam Pemberton, said: “We welcome these pilots because repeated, aggressive questioning of vulnerable witnesses in a packed courtroom cannot be the best way to obtain sound and accurate evidence.

“More importantly, it is not the right way to protect vulnerable victims and witnesses from what can often be a distressing and traumatic experience. Victims and witnesses are entitled to a fair trial as well as defendants and we believe pre-recorded evidence taken in a less intense environment and when events are fresher in the mind will help level the playing field.

“However, it remains critical that vulnerable and intimidated witnesses get specialist help and support throughout the criminal justice process too.”

Victims’ Commissioner Baroness Newlove said vulnerable victims deserved the best possible protection but urged the Government to go further.

“There needs to be a total culture change in the way that victims are treated by the courts, especially when it comes to cross-examination,” she said.

“When it comes to the trial, we all too often let victims down by not treating them with basic human decency. Prosecutors have an important responsibility to protect victims from gruelling and repeat questioning by multiple defence lawyers.

“We can improve this by providing everyone with clearer and more open Crown Prosecution Service policy on pre-trial counselling and give victims better guidance on the support available to help them cope with the stresses of the trial.”