Judges get power to stop rape trial ordeal

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THE Lord Chief Justice said yesterday that judges in rape trials should intervene to prevent complainants being deliberately intimidated by defendants who opted to conduct their own cross-examination.

In a judgement which effectively gives guidelines on the issue to lower courts, Lord Bingham said a defendant was entitled to ask questions, but if he deliberately prolonged the process, the judge should call a halt or even take over the questioning himself to save the complainant from avoidable distress.

He said: "If the defendant seeks by his dress, bearing, manner or questions to dominate, intimidate or humiliate the complainant, or if it is reasonably apprehended that he will seek to do so, the judge should not hesitate to order the erection of a screen in addition to controlling the questioning."

Speaking at the Court of Appeal, Lord Bingham was giving judgment refusing Milton Brown leave to appeal against his conviction and 16-year prison sentence for twice raping a woman and indecently assaulting and falsely imprisoning another.

At his Knightsbridge Crown Court trial last November, 44-year-old Brown sacked his defence team, conducted his own defence and subjected his victims to merciless cross-examination, pausing between questions for up to 10 minutes and making explicit suggestions to them.

Yesterday, one of Brown's victims, Sandra Summers, 38, who waived her right to anonymity after he was jailed, said Lord Bingham had not gone far enough in his comments.

Mrs Summers said: "Alleged sex attackers should not be allowed to question their victims at all. The ordeal is too terrible. I do not think most women could cope."

Lord Bingham, sitting with Mr Justice Turner and Mr Justice Penry-Davey, said Judge Pontius had conducted the rape trial with great fairness and judgment and did everything he thought he could to protect the two women.

But his closing remarks on the right to cross-examine prompted the Court of Appeal to "offer such help as we can give to any trial judge who may, in the immediate future, face a similar difficulty".

Lord Bingham said there was no doubt the law could be changed to oblige a defendant to be legally represented, but some would see this as an infringement of their customary rights.

A trial judge's duty was, of course, to ensure the accused received a fair trial, but he must also have regard for the interests of other parties, particularly witnesses who were obliged to re-live their ordeal.

In cases such as the present, it would often be desirable, before any questions were put, to discuss the course of proceedings with the defendant in the absence of the jury.

A defendant should be told in advance that, having made a point, he would be required to move on. If he refused to do so, the judge should intervene.

The Brown rape trial prompted Home Secretary Jack Straw to promise a change in the law. "I am determined that we will stop putting victims through this traumatising experience," he said.

A Home Office working group has been examining better ways to protect vulnerable witnesses - including rape victims - in the criminal justice system.