Safeguards plan for abuse victims in witness box

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Rape victims and abused children could get greater protection when questioned in court under plans to be drawn up by former chief prosecutor Keir Starmer, Labour said.

Mr Starmer, director of public prosecutions until earlier this year, will also look at making it a legal obligation for the police and prosecutors to keep crime victims informed about the progress of investigations.

There have been a number of high-profile cases where vulnerable witnesses have faced the harrowing ordeal of having to relive their experiences in detail under cross-examination in court.

Violinist Frances Andrade killed herself a week after giving evidence against former teacher Michael Brewer, who was later found guilty of indecently assaulting his pupil. In court, the mother-of-four was called a “liar” and a “fantasist” under cross-examination.

Concerns were also raised after a number of child victims faced questioning against members of a paedophile ring in Oxfordshire, leading to calls for pre-recorded cross-examinations and barristers to undergo compulsory training.

Yesterday, Mr Starmer said he would advise Labour on introducing legislation, should it win power in 2015, to give greater protections to vulnerable witnesses in court.

He said: “I am delighted to be involved in this crucial piece of work. Victims are entitled to have their rights clearly set out and enforced by a victims’ law.

“This is a golden opportunity to recast the criminal justice system as a criminal justice service fit for victims. But it will only succeed if there is an attitude-shift across criminal justice. Those delivering criminal justice have been on the back foot for far too long when it comes to victims’ rights.”

The changes, which will replace the current “toothless” code of conduct for prosecutors and the police, could also see victims of crime given a single point of contact so they find it easier to get information about the progress of their cases.

Detailed proposals will now be drawn up by Mr Starmer and a special task force, including Labour peer Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon, whose son Stephen was murdered by racist thugs, and Peter Neyroud, former chief constable of Thames Valley Police and a criminologist at Cambridge University.

Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan said the proposals, if implemented, would give the public greater confidence in the criminal justice system.

He said: “At the moment, there are a variety of codes and charters across various Government agencies which are toothless, confusing and inadequate.

“Whether it’s the father of Milly Dowler treated in court like a criminal, the 13-year-old victim of sexual abuse labelled a ‘sexual predator’ by a judge, or the victim only finding out their attacker has been released from prison by bumping into them in the supermarket, our justice system is failing too many victims.

“Victims represent some of society’s most vulnerable people. That’s why we need nothing short of a transformation if we are to deliver a criminal justice service that supports members of the public who have been innocent victims of crime through no fault of their own.”

As director of public prosecutions, Mr Starmer had to be politically neutral. But since he stood down, there have reports he is planning to move into politics.

Reportedly named after former Labour leader Keir Hardie, it has been claimed he may be interested in taking over the safe Labour seat of Holborn and St Pancras if former health secretary Frank Dobson stands down in 2015.