Rape victims may be spared grilling from defendants

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Ministers are considering plans which would, in effect, bar rape victims from cross-examination by their alleged attackers.

The proposal, which comes after a case in which a rapist was able to question his two victims for days in open court, is one of several options being considered by an inter-departmental group set up to look at the interests of witnesses.

At present child witnesses are protected from cross-examination by defendants, and the idea under consideration is to extend this right to other vulnerable witnesses, such as alleged rape victims.

Another option being discussed by the Vulnerable Witness Group, which is due to report in the New Year, is to recommend fresh guidance for judges, giving them full discretion to prevent, or stop cross-examination if they feel the defendant is abusing his or her right to a fair trial.

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

The Home Office minister Alun Michael, who confirmed the need for a clarification in the law, said: ".... the judge has to be very careful, because if he steps in too quickly, the danger is he will give grounds for an appeal. If that appeal is successful, a rapist can walk free."

In the case which finished at Knightsbridge Crown Court on Wednesday, the 43-year-old defendant - who cannot be named for legal reasons - was able to cross-examine his two victims for several days, even though trial Judge Timothy Pontius warned him against "manipulating the system". The jury later took just over an hour to convict him.

At one point one of the women victims asked the judge: "Do I have to put up with this? I have never been so humiliated in my life."

Yesterday Victim Support, which has a representative on the group considering changes in the law, welcomed the commitments by ministers.

A spokeswoman said that while defendants had a right to a fair trial, the treatment of the two women in the Knightsbridge case had been "appalling".

She added: "No women should have to go through what they went though."

The concern among all groups is that such experiences will discourage other women from coming forward as witnesses in rapes cases, where there is already a low conviction rate.