The most senior judge in England and Wales has rejected calls for specialist courts to deal with cases of child sexual exploitation.
Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, the head of the judiciary in England and Wales, believes the proposals for specialist centres will lead to increased waiting times and are likely to be costly to run. Writing to chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee Keith Vaz MP, Lord Judge said he had made changes to the selection process for judges sitting on serious sex cases, while these judges will receive bespoke training on how to conduct trials with significantly vulnerable witnesses.
As well as calling for additional training for judges, Mr Vaz's committee also recommended the Government introduce specialist courts, similar to domestic violence courts currently running, for child sexual abuse or sexual offences as a whole.
The committee did not want new buildings created but rather in each region one court room should be designated as the preferred court for the most serious child sexual exploitation cases. But in his response to the committee's report, Lord Judge, who retires from his role at the end of September, said: "I do not agree that specialist courts will materially improve the position.
"It goes without saying that all of those involved in the process should be trained appropriately, but there are likely to be unintended adverse consequences if this proposal is taken forward. Restricting the available venues to a few specialist centres is likely to lead to far greater waiting times because of the limited number of court rooms, judges and staff. Additionally, these courts are likely to prove expensive to set up and run.
"Instead, the combination of the other very sensible proposals in your report, including the training of advocates and the additional training of the core group of judges, will in my view deliver exactly the same outcome as a specialist court."
Lord Judge has previously shown his support for proposals to allow young and vulnerable victims of horrific crimes to pre-record evidence for criminal trials in a bid to protect them from the trauma of appearing in court.
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.
Javed Khan, chief executive of independent national charity Victim Support, said plans to provide judges with additional training were "significant". He said: "Ensuring appropriately experienced and trained judges preside in the most complex of cases, particularly those involving multiple-defendants, is a considerable step in the right direction. Whilst I agree that many judges handle cases sensitively, our experience tells me that others can be too slow to interject during overly aggressive cross-examination."
The changes announced by the Lord Chief Justice in his letter to Mr Vaz will mean senior judges - that is the Resident Judge and Presiding Judge - will have to approve the trial judge for all serious sex cases that are due to last more than two weeks or where there are multi-defendants. This will also happen where a witness is considered to be "significantly" vulnerable. This core batch of judges will then get additional specialist training.