Evidence pilot scheme to start
A pilot scheme which allows victims and witnesses to give evidence ahead of criminal trials starts tomorrow.
The most vulnerable people involved in the courts process will be able to give their evidence and be cross-examined away from the intense atmosphere of a live courtroom, in an attempt to spare them what could be aggressive questioning in front of jury, judge and their alleged attacker.
The Government is initially trying the new approach in three courts with the aim of rolling it out more widely if successful, the Ministry of Justice said.
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.
This allows them to give their evidence and be cross-examined by both prosecution and defence barristers ahead of the trial, in front of a judge, and then it is shown to the jury as part of the trial.
Three Crown Courts - Leeds, Liverpool and Kingston-upon-Thames - are testing pre-trial cross-examination this year.
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."
Before this, victims and witnesses could only be cross-examined in court during the trial, although provisions existed to support those deemed vulnerable, such as giving evidence from behind a screen or via a video link.
There will be now a six-month period in which pre-trial cross-examination is tested in action.
Adam Pemberton, assistant chief executive at Victim Support, 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 deserve the best possible protection from the hostile courtroom. While this is a welcome step for victims, I will be urging 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.
"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 CPS policy on pre-trial counselling and give victims better guidance on the support available to help them cope with the stresses of the trial."
Alan Wardle, NSPCC head of corporate affairs, said: "We welcome the pilot and hope it paves the way for more children to be spared the ordeal of having to give live evidence in court. It is important to remember that although this is ground-breaking for England and Wales, pre-recording evidence has been successfully used in Australia for over 20 years and we are pleased that it is finally being trialled here.
"The pilot will not necessarily make the system as child-friendly as it could be, but is a positive step - offering children the opportunity to give their evidence and be cross examined in advance of the trial and sparing them the often lengthy wait for a court date which can cause unnecessary anxiety. However, there is still more work to be done to ensure all young witnesses are supported by a justice system that is truly fit for children."