Labour calls for a block on women's witness box ordeals

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The Independent Online
Judges should be given the power to ban suspected sex attackers and stalkers from cross-examining their alleged victims in court, Labour will suggest today.

The call for a review of the system follows two recent cases in which women - one of whom was raped, the other stalked - were questioned by their tormentors about the intimate details of their ordeals. In one of the trials a convicted rapist exercised his legal right to represent himself and cross examined his victim for six days.

Janet Anderson, shadow Minister for Women, said yesterday that cases like this caused "appalling distress". She has written to Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, asking him to review urgently the law and consider "providing the trial judge with a power, in appropriate, serious cases, to require defendants to accept that they will be defended by counsel".

Ms Anderson said yesterday: "Defendants have a right to opt to represent themselves, but that does not give them the right to abuse that privilege in the cause of intimidating witnesses.

"Given the appalling distress caused to women victims in such cases, and the fact that their well publicised experiences might dissuade some victims from agreeing to give evidence in future, I have called on the Home Secretary to urgently review the current arrangements."

Julie Bindel, spokeswoman for the International Conference on Violence Abuse and Women Citizenship, argued that "immediate redress" of the law was needed to prevent women who were victims of sexual assault being questioned by their attackers.

Victim Support, the group that helps people who have suffered from crime, has also called for legislation reforms.

A Home Office spokeswoman said that they were "actively" looking at the issue.

In her letter to the Home Secretary, Ms Anderson highlights the two recent cases that caused public outrage about the legal procedure.

In a case last month Julia Mason had to endure six days of questioning by Ralston Edwards about the details of her rape. Edwards was later convicted of the attack.

Ms Mason said afterwards that Edwards was "reliving the rape moment by moment" when he cross-examined her. "At least when a barrister is asking the questions he is doing it to get to the truth. When a rapist is asking the questions he knows what he has done and is furthering the act.

"I feel like I have been raped twice," she added.

In the second case a woman wept after the man she accused of stalking her for four years walked free from court on Tuesday.

Margaret Bent said during a week-long trial that Dennis Chambers had continually pestered her and threatened her with a knife.

Mr Chambers, who has twice been convicted for affray in relation to Ms Bent, defended himself. During the trial he stood within inches of Ms Bent and cross-examined her for 30 minutes. The jury decided that Mr Chambers had not caused Ms Bent serious psychological harm and he was found not guilty of affray and causing grievous bodily harm with intent.