Lawyers blast plan to shield rape accusers from court quizzing
TOP lawyers have slammed Government plans to shield rape accusers from facing crossexamination in court.
They said proposals to let alleged victims give evidence by video recording would be unfair to defendants – and make it harder for juries to determine the truth.
The backlash follows the announcement of the plans at the weekend by Justice Secretary Liz Truss. Writing in a Sunday newspaper, she said the scheme – which is set to go nationwide from the autumn – ‘will not reduce the right to a fair trial, but will ensure victims of these crimes are protected’.
She said that pilots in trials involving children and vulnerable witnesses led to more guilty pleas and were a ‘more positive experience’ for victims.
But lawyer Andrew Ford wrote in the barristers’ trade magazine Counsel that there was ‘a feeling that the witness can appear removed from the case’. He said for children this was good but ‘others argue that there is no substitute for having the witness in front of the jury.’
Meanwhile Francis FitzGibbon QC, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, told Radio 4: ‘If it is likely to become the default for sex abuse cases, I think it’s likely to detract from the reality of trials. It would make it harder for juries to determine where truth lies.’
He added that it was important for trials to happen ‘in real time’ as they can ‘change rapidly’.
Zoe Gascoyne, chairman of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association, said the courts were unprepared to pre-record evidence for hundreds of cases.
She added that alleged victims might have to return to give more evidence, and would still have to wait for a trial even if not in the courtroom. ‘I do not think this is as beneficial for defendants as made out,’ she said.
Miss Truss is expected to include regulations for recording rape complainants in her Prisons and Courts Bill, which was presented to MPs for its second reading yesterday.
In the Commons, former attorney general Dominic Grieve warned that letting alleged rape victims pre-record evidence could undermine a fair trial.
While in the Ministry of Justice’s own evaluation of the pilots last September, analyst John Baverstock warned: ‘Some advocates felt conditions meant they were not able to effectively question the witness.’
Responding to the criticism, Miss Truss said ‘a fair trial is at the heart of our justice system’, adding: ‘These issues [will be looked at] in detail to make sure that a fair trial is always paramount in these cases.’
Storm over plan for rape victims to pre-record court evidence
From yesterday’s Mail