Rapists will lose right to quiz victims

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The Independent Online
RAPE victims, children and disabled witnesses are to be given extra protection in court, under laws to be introduced in the autumn.

The planned changes in rape trials were unveiled by Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, at the Police Federation's annual conference in Bournemouth yesterday. He said that he wanted to bring in new laws to stop defendants accused of rape or serious sexual assault from unnecessarily questioning an alleged victim's previous sexual history.

Suspected rapists will be banned from bringing up the previous sexual history of alleged victims in most trials. They will also be prevented from cross- examining rape victims.

The announcement follows evidence that men accused of rape and sexual assaults have been deliberately intimidating and humiliating their accusers in court in an attempt to get the cases against them dropped.

The reforms are part of a package of measures to help vulnerable witnesses have the confidence to give evidence to courts. They are expected to include greater use of live and recorded video links for children and mentally disabled witnesses and victims. They may also propose the greater use of counselling and measures to make courts less intimidating, such as having judges remove their wigs.

The proposals will be included in a Criminal Justice Bill to be announced later this year.

Mr Straw said there was "widespread concern about unnecessary questioning of a rape victim's previous sexual history" and that it was often carried out to "break their overall credibility".

Defendants will also be banned from cross-examining their alleged victims. Instead, all rape and serious sexual assault cases will be given legal aid so that a lawyer can be hired to carry out the questioning.

The move follows a drop in the proportion of people being convicted of rape from 37 per cent of court cases in 1980 to 11 per cent in 1995, at a time when the number of assaults being reported has risen four-fold to nearly 5,000.

In one of the worst examples of cross-examination, Ralston Edwards spent six days at the Old Bailey last year questioning a woman while wearing the same clothes in which he attacked her in her London flat. He was subsequently convicted.

Earlier yesterday, the Home Secretary came under attack from Fred Broughton, chairman of the Police Federation, which represents about 120,000 serving officers. He warned that rather than "get better", "things had only got bitter" under the Labour government.

To loud applause from delegates, Mr Broughton criticised Mr Straw's proposals to make it easier to sack and discipline officers, and lambasted plans to change pensions and sick pay. He was also scathing about a reduction in the number of officers on the beat. This followed Mr Straw's extremely hostile reception at the Prison Officers' Association on Tuesday.

But in response, Mr Straw managed to win over his audience with a skilful speech that included some jokes, some flattery, and the promise to review the disciplinary changes to ensure officers were not being victimised.