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Child victims to be given court video protection

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Media captionAbuse victim Sarah Kelly said giving evidence in court was "traumatic"

Child victims of crime and vulnerable adults are to be protected from appearing in court, as part of a government pilot.

The plans for England and Wales, first proposed almost 25 years ago, will mean witnesses can be questioned on video before trials begin.

It comes amid concerns that some child witnesses have been treated with hostility in sexual abuse trials.

The justice secretary said they would avoid the "cauldron of the courtroom".

But the right to a fair trial would be preserved under the plans, Chris Grayling insisted.

'Graphic details'

Prosecutors and police chiefs have also published new guidelines on how to prepare cases involving child sexual abuse - saying that the focus must be on the credibility of the allegations, not questions over the victim's perceived weaknesses as a witness.

Children and vulnerable adults can already give evidence from behind a screen or by video-link. Both techniques are designed to make the court experience less stressful.

Sometimes, the prosecution uses a recorded police interview with the victim to reduce the time the individual must spend in court repeating the same account.

When witnesses do appear, judges can stop overly-aggressive cross-examination, but there are no limits on the duration of questioning - or the number of lawyers who can question a witness or victim.

In one recent case, according to the government, a girl was in the witness box for three weeks as she was questioned by seven defence barristers who took her through precise details of what had happened to her.

Ministers say they will now implement section 28 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 which allows the cross-examination of children and the most vulnerable adult victims to be recorded before trial so that they do not have to take part in the live process.

The legislation stresses that a victim or witness may be recalled for further cross-examination if lawyers need to question them about points that were not apparent at the time of the recording.

'Pressurised environment'

Mr Grayling said the changes were designed to allow victims to give evidence in "as easy and unchallenging a way as possible" and would be piloted in Leeds, Liverpool and Kingston-upon-Thames.

"The aim is to really take the victim out of the cauldron of the courtroom... out of the pressurised environment of the trial as it happens live, to enable them to give evidence in a quieter, more measured environment," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

Keir Starmer, the director of public prosecutions for England and Wales, said: "There's a general appreciation that the way we deal with these cases has got to change, and today really marks the day when the criminal justice response changes in these cases, and changes for the better.

"We have an adversarial system, and that means that the prosecution's case must be challenged. I have to accept that; I do accept that.

"What today is about is making sure that the challenge is managed... so that there isn't multiple cross-examination, there isn't unlimited cross-examination, and if it's possible to do it beforehand and pre-record it, that's done. So it's managing the challenge, not removing the challenge."

Welcoming the implementation of section 28, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, said: "This was first suggested by the committee chaired by Judge Pigot QC in 1989 and the judiciary has long supported its implementation.

"I spoke in support of this most recently in March. I am delighted that a pilot scheme will now be run and look forward to full implementation across the country in due course."

Maura McGowan QC, chairwoman of the Bar Council, said that barristers were trained to ensure cross-examination was never gratuitous while ensuring that they carried out their duties to test the evidence to ensure a defendant receives a fair trial.

She added: "That said, we support any attempts to reduce the stress of the experience for witnesses."

'Heartbreaking'

Alan Wardle, from the NSPCC, welcomed the change.

"The pressure of court for some children - and when you remember they are reliving some pretty horrific experiences - can be very difficult, particularly when it is compounded by aggressive questioning by defence barristers.

"We know that some cases don't even get to court because they worry about how children will be able to cope. So this is a very good step forward today."

On Monday, the influential Commons Home Affairs Committee issued a report on child sexual exploitation. It said recent cases had revealed there was insufficient protection for vulnerable witnesses - and that the 1999 video recording proposal should be implemented as Parliament intended.

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