Radical changes to the way vulnerable complainants and witnesses are treated in court are being considered by the Labour Party. The plans suggest that some witnesses and crime victims could be questioned by the trial judge as opposed to being cross-examined by barristers.
It is one idea being considered by the taskforce drawing up Labour’s proposed victims’ law, led by the former chief prosecutor Sir Keir Starmer. The taskforce considering the changes includes Labour peer Baroness Lawrence, mother of murdered teenager Stephen, and Peter Neyroud, former chief constable of Thames Valley Police who is now a criminologist at Cambridge University.
Labour leader Ed Miliband said:
“It is time for a radical change in approach and I am delighted that the taskforce will look at the end-to-end service victims receive.”
Sir Keir, who served as director of public prosecutions between 2008 and 2013, indicated that measures previously deemed “no-go areas” should be considered. He indicated that many victims were not coming forward with complaints as they had a fundamental lack of faith in the justice system.
“And the issue that deters them is simply the way in which they are likely to be treated if they come forward.”
The taskforce is also examining whether victims of violence or sexual abuse should be required to physically attend a police station to report a crime. Sir Keir said this requirement “puts many off from the start” and suggested this process could take place at a more welcoming location. He said the entire court system “needs to be addressed”, pointing out that victims can find themselves being cross-examined by both sides for hours or sometimes even days in complex cases.
“The idea that if the prosecution and defence attack each other as fiercely as possible the truth will somehow pop out has its attractions, but for particularly young and vulnerable witnesses there are obvious downsides.”
“Perhaps judges should be given the task of questioning young and vulnerable witnesses?”
The Conservatives are also understood to be considering changes to assist witnesses and Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said more money than ever before was available for victims’ services. He commented:
“We are also piloting pre-trial cross-examination to help young and vulnerable witnesses give evidence without going through what can be an aggressive and intimidating court experience.”
“We will continue to work with others to ensure victims get the help they need to come to terms with and recover from the traumatic effects of crime.”