Rape victims to be spared ordeal of being cross-examined live in court
Measures to spare alleged rape victims from facing live cross-examination in court will be rolled out as part of changes introduced by the justice secretary.
Liz Truss has announced that from September victims in England and Wales will be able to provide evidence in prerecorded cross-examinations to be played to the jury once a trial begins.
The rule is being introduced to all adult sexual offence trials following the success of pilot schemes using pre-recorded evidence in cases of child sexual abuse.
It was found that defendants, when confronted with the strength of the evidence against them before the trial, were more likely to enter an early guilty plea, reducing the trauma for victims, speeding up the process and saving money.
The move is part of a package of changes that include introducing the offence of “sexual communication with a child” in order to crack down on grooming via social media. Those convicted face a jail term of up to two years and an automatic listing on the sex offender register.
Truss said the changes to rape trials would prevent victims facing the trauma of confronting their attackers without reducing the right to a fair trial. She told the Sunday Times: “There is more we can do to help alleged victims in these cases give the best possible evidence they can give in an environment that is much more suitable than open court.”
Rape prosecutions are at record levels and the court system is struggling to cope with the number of cases. Domestic abuse, rape, sexual offences and child sex abuse account for 19% of the Crown Prosecution Service’s total caseload – more than double the figure six years ago.
The volume of rape referrals to the CPS from the police rose to 6,855 in 2015-16 – up 11% on the previous year. Of those referred, 3,910 resulted in charges and 1,300 in convictions. However, campaigners claim just 6% of all reported cases end with the accused being convicted.
The new regulations will aim to improve the conviction rate, with victims and vulnerable witnesses able to give evidence “in a room in court where it’s much less intimidating, where there are ground rules set by the judge”, Truss said.
She said the changes would mean judges can limit the length of cross-examination to avoid victims having to testify for days on end and would also allow them to cut out any inappropriate cross-examination of a victim’s sexual history before it could be aired in front of a jury.
The victims’ commissioner, Lady Newlove, welcomed the news. “Pre-recorded cross-examination allows vulnerable victims and witnesses to give evidence in a safe environment and I hope these long-awaited measures will provide the protection and reassurance they need to seek justice.”
However, some questioned whether the new measures would place the defendant in rape trials at an unfair disadvantage.
James Conte, who founded the website Accused.me.uk, a support group for victims of false accusations, said: “While we would welcome measures that would increase the rape convictions of people who really have committed rape, if you are wholly innocent of someone trying to frame you, you will not welcome these changes because they will increase your chances of being wrongfully convicted.”
But Lisa Avalos, a professor of law at the University of Arkansas who has carried out comparative work on rape prosecutions between Britain and the US, pointed out that false claims make up just 2-3% of all rape allegations, according to a study commissioned by the Home Office.
The justice secretary, Liz Truss, said the change would come in from September