New guidelines after teenager was 'offered holiday and chance of £50,000 to testify'

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The Independent Online

A brand new pair of trainers, a holiday in Spain and a £50,000 reward all helped persuade Bromley, the Crown's crucial 14-year-old witness, of the benefits of giving evidence in court.

A brand new pair of trainers, a holiday in Spain and a £50,000 reward all helped persuade Bromley, the Crown's crucial 14-year-old witness, of the benefits of giving evidence in court.

But new Home Office rules on interviewing children in criminal investigations and a crackdown on media payments to witnesses make it unlikely that such obvious inducements will ever again be allowed to influence such a high-profile prosecution.

The Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, has promised to outlaw media payments to witnesses during criminal trials which could end the practice of newspapers offering cash rewards in return for evidence.

Rules for interviewing child witnesses in criminal cases are to be tightened next month and will address some of the concerns raised in the Damilola Taylor trial.

Sgt Carolyn Crooks was accused by defence barristers of prompting, pressurising and offering incentives to the 14-year-old girl to extract an "unreliable" statement that she had seen the defendants kill Damilola.

According to the defence barristers, the officer broke the rules by offering the girl, then 13, a holiday in Spain paid by police before she questioned her, interviewing her for up to three hours at a time and telling her she "was more guaranteed" to get a £50,000 reward as an eye witness. Some of these concerns were later upheld by the judge when he threw out her evidence.

The new Home Office guidance, which comes into force in May, covers anyone under the age of 17 who may be witnesses to any type of crime.

It warns officers and court staff to take account of the level of children's "cognitive, social and emotional development" when conducting interviews.

It also makes it clear that "no inducements should be offered for complying with the investigative process". Officers are asked to consider the question: "Does the child appear 'streetwise' yet in reality have limited understanding?"

The guidance on vulnerable and child witnesses replaces the 1992 "memorandum of good practice" for how these interviews should be conducted.

The new rules will complement recent reforms in the way children are prosecuted in adult courts, introduced two years ago after the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the formality and ritual of the Crown Court meant that the defendants in the James Bulger case were unable to participate in the proceedings.

These changes were followed in the Damilola Taylor trial at the Old Bailey. None of the original four defendants were left in the dock but instead allowed to sit with their families in close proximity to their lawyers. Wigs and gowns were not worn, there were frequent breaks, there was no recognisable police presence in the courtroom and a limit was placed on the number of people attending the hearing.

But yesterday child welfare groups called for an end to children being prosecuted in any adult court. Caroline Abrahams, director of public policy and legal reform at the national children's charity, NCH, said: "Specialist courts designed to deal with children accused of grave crimes should be set up, and young people should not go through the 'accusatory and adversarial' trial process."

The charity backs Lord Justice Auld's recommendation in last year's review of the criminal courts that the Crown Court is an inappropriate venue for trying children. The Court of Appeal judge argued the case for setting up specialist youth courts to try children who are accused of committing grave crimes.

Ms Abrahams added: "We would like to see special courts to listen to the cases of children. A specialist judge of the appropriate level of seniority and two magistrates in support would be ideal."

But lawyers also argued that the mistakes made in the Damilola trial had little to do with the fact that the defendants and principal witness were children. Neil Addison, a senior defence barrister and a former CPS prosecutor, said it would be a knee-jerk reaction to "say there is now something wrong" with prosecutions involving child witnesses.

"In this case, like in many others, the evidence was simply unreliable. The court bent over backwards to accommodate these witnesses. We should think very carefully before we decide on any major reforms of the system," he said.