Cross-examination of vulnerable victims being reviewed

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Media captionDamian Green, Justice Minister: "A young girl was interviewed by seven different defence barristers"

A review of aggressive courtroom cross-examination of vulnerable victims in England and Wales is to be launched.

Justice Minister Damian Green cited a recent child prostitution case in which one victim was cross-examined for 12 days by seven defence barristers.

He said work would be carried out over the summer to find ways to curb hostile practices after cases where witnesses were left "deeply traumatised".

Victim Support said the justice system often overlooked the victim.

Mr Green said vulnerable victims currently often faced reliving the "most horrific experience they have ever had", sometimes for days on end, when cross-examined in court.

"The growing number of cases where victims report being left deeply traumatised by aggressive cross-examination from multiple defence barristers mean that questions must be asked," he said.

"I have ordered an investigation into how we might reduce the distress caused to victims without compromising the fundamental right to a fair trial."

Mr Green raised concerns about the treatment of victims in the recent trial of a gang who ran a child prostitution ring in Telford, Shropshire. One girl - who had been sold to men across England since the age of 13 - was aggressively cross-examined for 12 days by seven different defence barristers.

He said the defence barristers took it in turns to accuse her of lying, asked whether she repented of her sins, and left her in tears on the stand. One defence barrister walked out in protest at how aggressive the questioning was.

The review, which will be carried out over the summer, will consider whether victims should have to answer the same question put by more than one barrister, as well as considering fresh guidance for judges in how to deal with such cases.

The Ministry of Justice said there are already limits in place as to what kind of questions a victim can be asked in court, along with restrictions on aggressive questioning but there is no limit on how long a victim can be questioned or by how many people.

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), which is working with the government on this matter, is also holding a three-month public consultation on interim guidelines, published earlier this month, for cases of child sexual abuse.

Under the guidelines, which cover cross-examination by defence barristers as well as behaviour by prosecutors, the defence team is advised to agree who will be the lead counsel to put questions to the victim in cases with more than one defendant, and the length of time given to the cross-examination.

They also say a ground rules hearing should be held in advance of the trial so that the victim is aware of what to expect and how long the proceedings in court should take

Mr Green also recently announced a pilot scheme to use pre-recorded evidence for vulnerable victims and witnesses so that they are no longer cross-examined in open court.

Special measures

Javed Khan, chief executive of charity Victim Support, said there was a need to rebalance the justice system which often overlooked the needs of the victim.

"Time and again we see victims who have had to endure a double trauma, first at the hands of those who have harmed them, only to then face torturous cross examination and degrading questions from multiple defence barristers in court.

"This is surely not the best way to obtain sound, accurate evidence, or indeed to protect vulnerable victims and witnesses.

"Recent announcements, such as enabling the use of pre-recorded interviewing in safe spaces, go some way to redress the balance for victims.

"However, we believe much more can and should be done, such as better use of special measures and compulsory training for defence barristers on how to handle young and vulnerable witnesses."

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