Dowler case prompts added protection for victims in court

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The Independent Online

Victims of crime and their families should be protected from aggressive and disrespectful cross-examination during trial under a charter of rights for witnesses, the Government's "victims' tsar", will recommend this week.

Louise Casey said that her review of the treatment of the targets of criminals, and their relatives, had "made my jaw drop" and the principles of the justice system had to be rebalanced to enshrine in law the notion that bereaved families should not suffer "avoidable intimidation, humiliation or distress". On Wednesday she will deliver a 60-page review to the Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, laying out proposals for reform in the wake of public anger at the treatment of the parents of the murdered teenager Milly Dowler.

During the trial of her killer, Levi Bellfield, Bob and Sally Dowler were subjected to intimate questioning about their sex life, Mr Dowler's interest in sado-masochistic pornography, and suggestions that their daughter was unhappy.

Ms Casey, who was appointed Victims' Commissioner last year, is expected to put forward a package of changes including a requirement that the bodies of murder victims be returned to their families within a month and that judges should take a stronger line to protect the privacy and dignity of grieving relatives when they give evidence. Another proposal is that court sitting times be made more flexible to make it easier for family members to give their testimony.

Writing in the News of the World, Ms Casey said: "I have been looking at the treatment of families like the Dowlers who have had their lives ripped apart by criminals. Like most people I assumed that they would get all the help they need and the criminal justice system would be on their side.

"What I discovered is that they are often not given the support, care or consideration they deserve. Many are still treated as if they are an 'inconvenience'... These families deserve not to have to sit next to an offender's family in court listening to them laughing and joking."

Urging ministers to "sit up and listen" when her recommendations are published, Ms Casey said a new code of conduct was required to protect victims.

But representatives of prisoners said that any changes should not undermine the opportunity of a suspected offender to receive a fair trial. Mark Leech, a former offender and campaigner who edits ConVerse, a newspaper for prisoners, said: "Until a defendant is found guilty by a jury, they possess exactly the same status as a witness, and if the prosecution can ask searching, deeply personal, questions of a defendant, there is no case for arguing that a witness should be treated any differently."

Justice minister Crispin Blunt said the Government would shortly announce its review of victim-support arrangements which will look at "services, entitlements and redress".