Women win new protection from 'second rape' in the witness box

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The Independent Online
Rape victims who suffer the ordeal of cross-examination by their attackers are to be given new protection, Lord Irvine of Lairg, the Lord Chancellor, has told The Independent.

Donald Macintyre and Michael Streeter discuss his reaction to cases that disgusted the country, and which he describes as a continuation of rape in court.

The key to protecting rape victims in the witness box is likely to be a more active role for judges. They could take over the questioning of the women themselves to prevent "excessive" cross-examination by their alleged attackers, Lord Irvine said yesterday.

He admits that the public is "enormously concerned" at recent cases in which accused rapists have subjected women to long and taunting interrogation in the witness box.

Alleged rapists who were representing themselves were being permitted, "as it seems to some members of the public to extend the rape by other means - the other means being cross examination. It must be addressed urgently".

Earlier this month, a crown court judge called for a change in the law after he sentenced a rapist who "mercilessly" cross-examined two victims for several days. Ministers have already announced a wide- ranging inter-departmental review to consider the issue. Now, Lord Irvine is promising brisk action.

Considering possible solutions, the Lord Chancellor highlighted the role of the trial judge. He said: "You could, for example, contemplate the judge intervening and taking over the cross-examination himself if his attempts to restrict excessive cross-examination by alleged rapists of their victims was simply not being obeyed.''

"The judge is in control of his own court," said Lord Irvine. But taking over cross-examination would be an option "only after his reasonable efforts to restrict cross-examination to what is relevant and necessary for a fair defence by the defendant has failed."

He warned though that there would be serious problems in taking away any rights of a rape defendant to defend himself because of obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, which is shortly to be incorporated into British law.

"It is a difficult question. We have clearly decided in government we're not going to shoot from the hip".

At a recent case at Knightsbridge Crown Court in London, Judge Timothy Pontius jailed for 16 years a rapist who had "mercilessly" questioned his two victims in court.

The judge made it clear he was not punishing the rapist for the way he defended himself.

But he added it was "highly regrettable" that the law allowed an unrepresented defendant "virtually an unfettered right to personally question his victims in needlessly extended and agonising detail for the obvious purpose of intimidation and humiliation".

One of the victims had to give evidence twice about the intimate details of her ordeal after the first jury was discharged following a heated clash with the judge over his behaviour and attitude towards her.

She later asked the judge: "Do I have to put up with this? I have never been so humiliated in my life."

In his interview, the Lord Chancellor also hinted that the Government may consider setting up a "hardship" or "hard cases" fund as part of its legal reforms, in which ministers plan to remove legal aid for all civil actions involving damages claims.

The legal profession, which claims the reforms will reduce access to justice for the poor, will see this as a welcome sign of compromise, but still insists the plans are being rushed through without proper consideration.