Vulnerable witnesses allowed to give evidence pre-trial

Liverpool Crown Court The trial will be run in three courts, including Liverpool Crown Court

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Vulnerable witnesses can give evidence before a trial starts from Monday as part of a pilot scheme in three Crown Courts in England.

Children under 16 and vulnerable adults will be eligible to give their account in advance and outside court.

They will give evidence and be cross-examined in front of a judge, with a recording then shown to a jury during a subsequent trial.

The government said the scheme "prioritises the victim".

The pilot scheme aims to limit the number of cases where victims and vulnerable witnesses are subject to long and uncomfortable questioning.

Shameema told the BBC's Clive Coleman the ordeal of being cross-examined caused her to faint in the witness box

'Intimidating'

Currently, witnesses can only be cross-examined in court during the trial, although there are provisions to allow vulnerable people to give evidence from behind a screen or via video link.

For some years it's been possible for a victim's or witness's evidence to be pre-recorded, but cross-examination has always had to be conducted "live" during the trial.

That changes under this pilot. Alleged victims and witnesses will have their cross-examination recorded before the trial and played later to the jury.

The cross-examination will be conducted with the defendant present in court. He or she will be able to instruct their lawyers during the process - which may be carried out with the victim or witness behind a screen or via a video link.

The hope is that, once removed from the intimidating atmosphere of the trial, victims and witnesses will be less intimidated and give better quality evidence.

The fact that they will be giving it earlier in the prosecution process - and closer to the time of the alleged crime - should also mean events are fresher in their minds.

However, some barristers believe that it may be less compelling for a jury to watch a video of a pre-recorded cross-examination, than to see the witness "live" in court.

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.

For the next six months a pilot scheme will film the evidence of selected witnesses to be used cases in Crown Courts in Leeds, Liverpool and Kingston-upon-Thames.

If successful, it could be extended to cover victims of sexual violence and rape.

The Ministry of Justice said the scheme will also allow witnesses in need of counselling and other therapy to receive help earlier.

Policing Minister Damian Green said it is "crucial that people who have experienced horrific crimes are given the highest possible level of protection and support."

He added: "If you experience a horrendous crime, giving evidence in the pressured environment of a live courtroom, in front of the jury and the public gallery, can be intimidating and perhaps too much to ask."

Protection and support

Charity Victim Support welcomed the scheme, saying "aggressive questioning of vulnerable witnesses in a packed courtroom cannot be the best way to obtain sound and accurate evidence."

Assistant chief executive Adam Pemberton said: "Victims and witnesses are entitled to a fair trial as well as defendants and we believe pre-recorded evidence taken in a less intense environment and when events are fresher in the mind will help level the playing field."

Mr Pemberton added: "However, it remains critical that vulnerable and intimidated witnesses get specialist help and support throughout the criminal justice process too."

The BBC's legal correspondent Clive Coleman said the pilot follows concerns that some young and vulnerable victims and witnesses were being subjected to "aggressive, repeated and overlong cross-examination".

He said a recent trial of a gang who ran a child prostitution ring in Telford, Shropshire, saw one girl - who had been sold to men across England since the age of 13 - subjected to cross-examination for 12 days by seven different defence barristers.

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