Court reforms aim to protect rape victims

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SUSPECTED STALKERS will be banned from cross examining their alleged victim in most court cases, under plans to reform the treatment of vulnerable or intimidated witnesses.

One-way mirrors which will allow alleged offenders, such as rapists and paedophiles, to see their victims in court are also expected to be recommended.

In a third reform, judges may be given powers to ban the publication of details of vulnerable witnesses which could lead to their identification.

The measures, which are due to be published today, are among a package of radical proposals to reform the way witnesses, particularly children, the disabled and victims of sexual assault, are dealt with by the criminal justice system.

The report also confirms changes announced by Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, to encourage more rape victims to give evidence. These include banning alleged rapists from cross examining their victims and not allowing a woman's sexual history to be read out in court except in exceptional circumstances.

The 78 recommendations contained in the review by the Interdepartmental Working Group will form the basis of changes to the law and court practise.

The report, Speaking Up For Justice, is expected to propose a major shake up of how witnesses are treated in future court cases. This follows concern that while the number of reported sex offences are increasing, the proportion of people being prosecuted is declining. This is thought to be linked to the traumatic experiences of some alleged victims who have faced hours of cross examination by their suspected attacker.

In an unexpected move, people accused of stalking - an increasingly common offence - will also face restrictions on who they can question. The report is expected to recommend giving judges new powers to ban cross examinations by the alleged offender.

On the question of shielding witnesses who may feel intimidated by their alleged assailant, the report is expected to propose allowing greater use of evidence given on video. The use of one way screens will also be suggested as a method of ensuring the defendant can see their accuser - considered an important legal principle - while screening the witness.

One of the more controversial proposals is expected to be giving courts new powers to restrict the publication of details that might identify witnesses considered vulnerable. This could outlaw almost all references to the background of a witness.

Other recommendations expected in today's report are:

Re-locating the witness box in exceptional cases so that people in the public gallery cannot see the person being questioned.

Providing pagers to some witnesses who will be allowed to wait outside the court building and be called only when needed to give evidence. This would prevent witnesses coming into unnecessary contact with the defendant or their supporters.

Providing legal aid for any alleged rapist to pay for a barrister to cross examine the alleged victim.

A pilot scheme allowing prisoners to appear in court on live television links from jails will begin in the autumn, the Home Office confirmed yesterday.

Two prisons, Bristol and Strangeways in Manchester, will test the system, which will be extended across the country if it is a success.

The TV links will cut the cost of transporting prisoners to and from court for routine remand and bail hearings, and reduce the risk of taking dangerous Category A inmates through city streets.