The Queen's Speech: Crime - Ban on rape defendants questioning the victims

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DEFENDANTS will be banned from cross-examining child witnesses or rape victims, as part of a series of proposed changes in court procedures.

Some first-time young offenders will have to sign new "contracts" of good behaviour, under other plans in the forthcoming Youth Justice and Witnesses Bill.

The Government has also given a small concession to the removal of the right of silence.

The measures were broadly welcomed yesterday, although the proposals to stop alleged rapists and serious sex offenders from cross-examining witnesses were criticised by the head of the judiciary and lawyers earlier this year.

Lord Bingham of Cornhill, the Lord Chief Justice, said that if defendants were not allowed to question their accusers, jurors might feel that they had been denied a fair trial and simply acquit. The Bar Council, which represents barristers in England and Wales, said yesterday that it shared Lord Bingham's concerns and the Law Society believes the system is "unworkable".

Despite the warnings that justice could be undermined, Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, is determined to push ahead with the changes, which follow a number of high-profile cases, including one in which a defendant spent six days at the Old Bailey questioning his victim.

Recent changes that allow the courts to make inferences from a defendant choosing to remain silent will be modified, so that they cannot be drawn when a suspect held in a police station has not had access to legal advice. The decision to extend the right to silence was welcomed by legal campaigners yesterday, although forthcoming changes to the human rights legislation are likely to have forced the move.

Other measures to help witnesses include:

A ban on unrepresented defendants from cross-examining children.

Details of previous sexual history in rape and serious sexual offence trials will be restricted.

Severely disabled witnesses, who currently could be excluded from giving evidence, will be given new rights to appear in court.

Vulnerable witnesses will also be encouraged to give evidence by increasing the use of screens, video-recorded interviews and live television links in courts.

The identity of witnesses in some sensitive cases will be restricted.

On the issue of Youth Justice, first-time young offenders who admit their crimes can be given "contracts", which will include terms such as apologising and making reparations towards their victim, carrying out community work, taking part in family counselling or drug rehabilitation.

Offenders who break the deal, to be drawn up by new youth offender panels, face tougher punishment, including a possible custodial sentence.

Plans for youth contracts were greeted as "imaginative" by the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, which said it would put the emphasis firmly on preventing reoffending. The Law Society said, however, that the number of first offenders who would come before the panels would be tiny.