Children’s champion calls for radical courts shake-up

PRESS RELEASE: June 19, 2014

Ann Coffey MP has called for vulnerable young witnesses in sexual abuse cases to be cross examined in pre-recorded sessions away from formal courtrooms.

There are currently three pilots testing out pre-recorded cross examination of witnesses but the pilots are taking place in actual court settings.

Ms Coffey said:

“I welcome these pilots as it means witnesses could be cross examined on their evidence earlier and will not have to wait months and months for the trial itself. They can get on with their lives.

“It might also stop some of the more hostile bullying by barristers who seek to humiliate and destroy witnesses using the court room as a theatre where they perform for the jury.

“However we want to go one step further and that is why I am supporting the NSPCC campaign for pre-recorded cross examinations to be taken out of the court setting and allowed to take place in a less stressful and informal environment.”

Ms Coffey, who is preparing a report for Tony Lloyd, the Police and Crime Commissioner for Greater Manchester on child sexual exploitation, said that there should be one “remote” site in every region.

She suggested that St Mary’s Sexual Assault Referral Centre would be a perfect place for cross examining vulnerable witnesses in Greater Manchester as it is a calm and reassuring environment.

Ms Coffey told the Commons during the third reading of the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill that she recently spoke to a young woman who was a victim in one of the Rochdale trials as part of her CSE inquiry.

The girl told Ms Coffey that one of the worst experiences of her life was the treatment she underwent in court.

She told Ms Coffey: “There is not a word to describe how bad it was. I have never ever experienced anything like that in my life and I never want to experience anything like that again. It was like one attack after another.

“One of the barristers was not even asking me questions he was just shouting at me and the judge kept having to tell him to stop shouting and move on and he kept asking questions that he was not supposed to ask.”

“When I could not remember things they made me feel really bad.”

Ms Coffey added: “We have one of the best SARCs in Greater Manchester which has had considerable experience of dealing with victims of sexual assault including children. It would make perfect sense to be able to use this as a setting to do pre-recorded cross examination of witnesses because it is a calm, safe and reassuring environment.”

She also called for transcripts of all court cases to be made available free on line to make court proceedings more transparent.

“We need to make what goes on in our courts more transparent. It is currently very difficult and expensive to get transcripts of court proceedings which puts them out of the reach of the public.

“I know there is some talk of filming court cases but the first step might be making transcripts available on line. It cannot be right that what goes on in our courts is only visible to those taking part in trials and the tiny, tiny proportion of the public that attends in person.”

Ms Coffey also called for more use of Registered Intermediaries in court who can support vulnerable young witnesses and help them to understand what is going on.

Research has shown that at least half of young witnesses (49 per cent) reported being unable to understand the questions they were asked in court and this escalates to 90 per cent for children under the age of 10.

More than half of young witnesses (58 per cent) said the defendant’s lawyer tried to make them say something they did not mean or put words in their mouth, and a quarter complained that their answers were interrupted.

She welcomed the fact that 600 judges nationwide have been on a special training programme on dealing with vulnerable witnesses so that they can enforce appropriate behaviour by barristers who have been accused of bullying and intimidating witnesses.

But she said she wanted to go a step further and ensure that vulnerable witnesses can be cross examined in advance away from the hostile surroundings of the court room.

 

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