Call for reform over child witnesses in court

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The Independent Online

The barrister who cross-examined the four-year-old girl raped by one of Baby P's killers has called for reform in the way that child witnesses are treated by the courts system.

Bernard Richmond, who defended the boyfriend of Baby P's mother's against a charge of rape, spoke out as he gave mitigation ahead of his client's sentencing.

The barrister was criticised after he asked the girl, who was just two when the offence took place, perplexing questions during cross examination such as "what is truth?". At points, the girl, being questioned via video link, looked frightened and refused to answer questions.

Ultimately her testimony helped convict the man who sexually abused her. He was found guilty earlier this month. But yesterday Mr Richmond accepted he may have been responsible for "failings" in his questioning, although said it was due to a flawed system. He said: "The cross-examination of a four-year-old victim of a sexual allegation is one of the most intense and difficult tasks to ever fall to an advocate. We do not pick and choose our cases. We are instructed and it is our duty and privilege to be available to everyone in need of us.

"Once we are engaged our duties are clear and established by rules. We must test the evidence against our client and must put inconsistencies to the witness, however young. This case involved putting to her that she was not telling the truth and that these events never happened.

"Currently in law there is no other method available to us other than cross-examination by video link following the briefest of introductions. Had there been a more relaxed method we would have encouraged it and I am sure your lordship would have granted it.

"There has been some comment that the examination was not appropriate. It is not for me to determine what system can be used in cross-examining children. One can only hope that a more appropriate system will come into play."

Police sources have already said they were shocked at the "adversarial way" in which the girl was cross-examined and say that the issue of how child witnesses are dealt with needs to be addressed. Currently, the only concessions made are that the child is allowed to give the evidence via video link, in a separate room, can have breaks between evidence and barristers and judges remove their wigs to make the process seem less formal.

But following sentencing tomorrow, police hope to meet with the Crown Prosecution Service, the Bar and other bodies to discuss how the situation could be remedied. One possible solution is the use of intermediaries to put the questions the barristers want answered to the children.