Barristers in child sex abuse cases must be stopped from “manipulating child witnesses like puppets” in the witness box, according to a leading MP.
Ann Coffey MP, the chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Missing Children, will today (Thursday) call for a Commission of judges and expert academics into reforming the rules on the cross examination of children after a spate of high profile sex trials in which lawyers branded vulnerable victims as “liars”.
She welcomed the new pilots set up by the Ministry of Justice into pre-recording evidence and cross examination of vulnerable witnesses in child sex abuse cases.
But she insisted that more must be done because the pilots would not tackle the huge problem of aggressive and misleading cross examination of children, which she said “continues to be a thorn in the side of justice”.
Ms Coffey will call for the changes during a cross party backbench Commons debate on Child Protection today (Thursday), which she has co-sponsored with Tim Loughton, the former children’s minister.
“After the horrific trials in Derby, Rochdale, Oxford and Telford it is clear that we need a new model for cross examination, which allows the evidence of vulnerable witnesses to be tested robustly but reliably.
“Currently the court is set up as a theatre in which lawyers perform. It is a process in which the vulnerable child witness is manipulated like a puppet.
“Of course, the right of the defendant to a fair trial and to fairly examine the witnesses against him or her must be sacrosanct. But the process has to be about obtaining the best quality of evidence in a way that is robust, reliable and safe for the witness.
“But at the moment, it is often not really cross examination of evidence at all, but is about smearing and breaking down the witness to get defendants off the hook.”
“Current conventional cross examination is more likely to confuse and mislead children than to draw out accurate and reliable evidence,” she will tell the Commons.
Indeed research by the NSPCC showed that more than 90 per cent of children under 10 do not understand the questions they are asked in court.
It also showed that more than half of young witnesses experience stress symptoms ranging from sleeping and eating problems to self-harming. Children under stress become confused in the witness box.
Already the Court of Appeal has taken a lead in several judgements by making it clear that cross examiners must use language appropriate to the developmental stage of the witness and that advocates must avoid heavy-handed suggestion of the “that didn’t happen, did it?” variety because it risks contaminating the child’s evidence.
Ms Coffey said:
“Recent court cases highlighted the appalling way in which children are regularly branded as “liars” and “fantasists” in an effort to undermine them. The brutality of the cross examinations in court often leaves them with lasting damage on top of the trauma of the original sexual abuse.”
Ms Coffey also said that the recent comments by a judge who described a 13 year old victim of abuse as “predatory” demonstrated an urgent need for all legal professionals acting in child sex abuse cases to be required to attend specialist training with regular updates.