In the courts: Rape victim's trial ordeal angers judge

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The Independent Online
A judge called for a change in the law that allows alleged rapists to cross-examine their victims, but support groups fear there are more cases to come. Michael Streeter, Legal Affairs Correspondent, considers the issue.

Judge Timothy Pontius yesterday jailed for 16 years a rapist who had "mercilessly" questioned his two victims in court.

The judge said he was not punishing the rapist for the way he defended himself but added it was "highly regrettable" the law allowed an unrepresented defendant "virtually an unfettered right to personally question his victims in needlessly extended and agonising detail for the obvious purpose of intimidation and humiliation".

Later Victim Support, which works for witnesses and victims of crime, said the Government needed to act "as a matter of urgency" to reduce the agony of witnesses in future cases.

A spokeswoman said: "This will not be the last case - we fear there are others in the pipeline. The danger is that it will discourage other witnesses from coming forward."

In June the Government set up an inter-departmental review on vulnerable witnesses. Its report is due in the New Year and early legislation or a change in regulations is expected.

Ministers are thought to be considering plans which would protect rape victims from cross-examination by their alleged attackers. At present child witnesses are afforded this protection, and the idea is to extend this right. Another option is to recommend fresh guidance for judges, giving them powers to prevent cross-examination if they feel a defendant is abusing their right to a fair trial.

At present ministers believe judges are too constrained by fears that by preventing effective cross-examination defendants would have strong grounds for an appeal.

Following the trial of the 44-year-old rapist last month, the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, said he was "appalled" at the women's court ordeal .

Passing sentence at Knightsbridge Crown Court the trial judge said the rapist, who had sacked his lawyers, had made repulsive suggestions to the two victims, whose courage in reporting the crimes then giving evidence he praised.

He said the sentence reflected the fact the defendant posed a serious risk to the public and that the rape offences last year had involved "protracted and repeated sexual violence of a horrifying degree".

The man, who cannot be named for legal reasons, was told that when he is eventually released he will have to register himself with the police under the Sex Offenders Act.

The jury was not told that in the past six years the defendant had been cleared of rape charges on four previous occasions, twice because his alleged victims were apparently too terrified to give evidence.

One of the victims had to give evidence twice after the first jury was discharged following a heated clash with the judge over his behaviour and attitude towards her. She later asked the judge: "Do I have to put up with this? I have never been so humiliated in my life."

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