Editorial: Witnesses are not on trial

Our adversarial system has long been known to deter victims from coming forward

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The Independent Online

The shocking case of Frances Andrade, who committed suicide after giving evidence in the trial of her former teacher, in which he was found guilty of indecently assaulting her in her youth, once again demands that we look at how such allegations are treated by the criminal justice system.

We learn of this terrible case as women and men around the world prepare to demand an end to violence against women in the One Billion Rising campaign this week, on which we report today.

This is a subject close to the heart of The Independent on Sunday. Our Christmas Appeal was for Refuge, the national domestic violence charity, and we have long publicised efforts by women to improve the reporting of rape and the bringing to justice of rapists.

The Andrade case is a terrible reminder of the lasting damage that sexual assault can do. It is also, however, a warning against undue pressure to prosecute. Mrs Andrade was a reluctant witness, brought to court because she confided in a friend who, most people would say quite rightly, went to the police. The friend knew that Michael Brewer, Mrs Andrade's abuser, was still working with children.

But Mrs Andrade regretted her decision to give evidence and was hurt by her cross-examination. Our adversarial court system has long been recognised as deterring victims from coming forward, although allegations have to be tested to protect people wrongly accused of such crimes.

Thus attitudes towards rape allegations have changed in recent decades. Police forces handle allegations better than they used to, and court procedures have been changed. Apart from anonymity for alleged victims, there are now rules designed to limit aggressive cross-examination. In the Andrade case, the judge said that the cross-examination – by a female barrister – had been "exemplary".

All the same, the trial was such a disturbing experience for Mrs Andrade that it seems to have at least contributed to her taking her life. Despite the progress that has been made in supporting witnesses, it can come as a shock for even well-supported victims to face questions designed to undermine their credibility. Noreen Tehrani, a psychologist who works with police forces, said last week that the "frenzy" over Jimmy Savile and other cases might put pressure other reluctant witnesses to testify. "I am very worried that some vulnerable victims will be lured into the courts and then shocked to find that they are not believed."

That is why we should be wary of politicians who pretend to have easy answers to the problem of how to bring more rapists to justice. As we report today, Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary, managed to please no one by suggesting last week that a caution "may be the only way to get something on the record" about a rapist if the victim is "absolutely unwilling to give evidence". That would seem both to belittle the offence and to lower the burden of proof.

The way forward, and the true lesson of the Andrade case, must be that the victims of sexual assault need more support. She certainly seems to have felt unsupported in giving evidence. We should look at some of the techniques used with child witnesses for testing the truth of allegations that minimise the potential trauma of traditional cross-examination.

Ending violence against women is an ambitious goal that requires all policies to be approached with an open mind.