MPs call for specialist courts to deal with sex abuse cases

 

Vulnerable sexual abuse witnesses should be allowed to give evidence in new specialist courts featuring uniquely-trained judges in the wake of the Rochdale and Jimmy Savile scandals, MPs will argue today.

The court sittings, modelled on those introduced for domestic violence cases, would also ensure a specially-trained court usher is assigned to at-risk witnesses and facilities such as screens to protect them from the accused are provided.

Conservative MP Nicola Blackwood and Labour MP Ann Coffey are calling for specialist courts in two proposed amendments to the forthcoming Crime and Courts Bill, which is being debated in Parliament today.

They will also press for "intermediaries" to be assigned to witnesses in every sexual exploitation case, who would advise on how to support vulnerable witnesses as well as monitor questioning and cross-examination practice.

Ms Coffey, MP for Stockport, said: "Cross examination is often traumatic and inappropriate for child witnesses. NSPCC research showed that more than half of young witnesses experience stress symptoms ranging from sleep and eating problems, depression, bed-wetting and self-harming.

"Children do not approach communication in the same way as adults and the same research also revealed that half of all young witnesses said they were unable to understand some of the questions they were asked in court. This rises to 90% in those aged under 10."

The calls come after Sir Peter Fahy, Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police, expressed concerns about the treatment of vulnerable court witnesses in the wake of the Savile scandal.

He said: "Police forces have significantly improved the way that victims are treated but the fact is many, many victims do not come forward or if they do are reluctant to support a prosecution. This highlights another issue in the way our adversarial court system treats victims."

He added: "In sexual offences, the behaviour of the victim, whether they had been drinking, any weaknesses of character, how they were dressed, may well be picked over at great length in the courtroom."

Esther Rantzen, the founder of ChildLine, has also said the pressure put on young witnesses during cross-examination in courtrooms is allowing sex offenders to get away with their crimes.

Vulnerable victims often have to endure aggressive cross-examination and questioning from multiple lawyers in intimidating court settings and NSPCC figures show that only 2% of young witnesses currently receive support from registered intermediaries.

The huge volume of unreported allegations against Savile demonstrates how many young people are frightened to come forward and talk about their experiences, the MPs said.

And the recent suicide of the musician Frances Andrade is also a stark reminder of how vulnerable some victims who give evidence against abusers in court can be, they added.

Ms Blackwood is MP for Oxford West, where nine men are currently on trial accused of grooming and exploiting children.

The men, from Oxford and Berkshire, deny 51 counts relating to girls aged between 11 and 15 from 2004 to 2012.

Ms Blackwood, who is also a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee, said: "While evidence has to be properly tested in court, I have seen first-hand the agony of a fragile young witness doing her best keep it together enough to describe, to a roomful of men in wigs, the violent sexual abuse she was subjected to for most of her childhood.

"All too often what follows next is aggressive cross examination to cast the witness as a liar, a prostitute, promiscuous, asking for it, or responsible for her own abuse.

"It doesn't have to be like that. Specialist courts can offer wrap-around support for witnesses while still delivering fairness to defendants. If the court process is less traumatising more victims will come forward, fewer investigations will collapse and more prosecutions will be successful."

The amendments have attracted support from around 100 MPs across all political parties.

Alan Wardle, NSPCC's head of corporate affairs, backed calls for specialist court sittings, led by trained judges.

He said: "We need a criminal justice system that actively encourages child victims to come forward, has the well-being of child victims at its heart and ultimately ensures that justice is done."

PA

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