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Pilot of evidence before trial scheme begins for at-risk and vulnerable witnesses and victims at three English courts

Three courts in England begin pilots of a new scheme allowing vulnerable witnesses and victims to give their best evidence to criminal trials before those trials begin

A pilot scheme which aims to protect at-risk victims and witnesses by allowing them to give evidence prior to criminal trials starts today.

The most vulnerable will be able to give their evidence and be cross-examined away from the intensity of a courtroom to spare them aggressive questioning in front of jury, judge and alleged attackers.

This new approach will be tested for six months in three courts with the aim of rolling it out more widely if successful, the Ministry of Justice said.

People who may find it difficult to give their best possible evidence in a courtroom environment and all child victims will be considered for pre-trial cross-examination in the pilot areas.

This allows them to give their evidence and be cross-examined by both prosecution and defence barristers before the trial in front of a judge. The jury will then see the evidence during the trial.

Leeds, Liverpool and Kingston-upon-Thames Crown courts will use the pre-trial cross-examinations this year.

Previously victims and witnesses could only be cross-examined in court during the trial, although provisions existed to support those deemed vulnerable, such as giving evidence from behind a screen or via a video link.

Victims’ Commissioner Baroness Newlove said reforms must go further if real progress is to be made.

She said: “There needs to be a total culture change in the way that victims are treated by the courts, especially when it comes to cross-examination.

“Prosecutors have an important responsibility to protect victims from gruelling and repeat questioning.”

NSPCC head of corporate affairs Alan Wardle welcomed the news but warned there was still a long way to go before the justice system was “truly fit” for children.

“Pre-recording evidence has been successfully used in Australia for over 20 years,” he said.

“The pilot will not necessarily make the system as child-friendly as it could be, but it is a positive step — offering children the opportunity to give their evidence and be cross examined in advance of the trial and sparing them the often lengthy wait for a court date which can cause unnecessary anxiety.”


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