Witnesses to crime promised protection

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The Independent Online
WITNESSES and victims of crime will be escorted from home to court in order to give evidence under government plans to combat intimidation in the legal system.

Other proposals, to be announced this week, include setting up more waiting areas in court buildings to separate witnesses from the accused as they wait to be called.

The moves are among 70 recommendations which will emerge this week from a Home Office study, which also proposes changes to the way rape trials are conducted.

The plans are designed to ease the plight of victims or witnesses of low-level crime whose lives are often made difficult because they live in close proximity to the perpetrators. The problem is particularly acute on inner-cityhousing estates.

Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, set up the committee last June amid rising concern over the widening gap between reported crime and convictions.

Since 1980, recorded crime has roughly doubled, while court convictions have fallen by about one-third, although part of that drop is due to the rise in the use of cautions.

The working party, which included representatives from the police, the courts and victim support groups, will publish its proposals this week, and legislation is expected in the next parliamentary session. The group will propose changes in the law to make it easier to prosecute those who intimidate witnesses.

Those most at risk may be given panic alarms to summon aid, and local authorities will be urged to help re-house those vulnerable to intimidation.

Suggested changes to the way rape trials are conducted will be aimed at making it more difficult for barristers to cross-examine women about their sexual histories - one element of the trial process which deters rape victims from pursuing cases.