The first ever case allowing vulnerable victims and witnesses to give evidence prior to the actual trial will start today. In a pilot scheme vulnerable victims and witnesses are now able to give their evidence and be cross-examined away from the intense atmosphere of a live courtroom, in an attempt to spare them from what could be aggressive questioning in front of jury, judge and their alleged attacker.
People who may find it difficult to give their best 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. Prior to 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.
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.”
All witnesses under 16 years old and those with a mental or physical disorder, which is likely to result in their evidence being diminished, will be eligible to give evidence in this way in participating courts. The 10 month pre-trial cross-examination pilot is taking place in Leeds, Liverpool and Kingston-Upon-Thames Crown courts, with the intention of rolling it out more widely if it proves a success. Since December the police and CPS have been identifying suitable victims to take part in the trial in these three areas and the filming of evidence starting this week.
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.”