Judges could be given the task of questioning young and vulnerable witnesses to end their ‘unacceptable’ courtroom ordeal, under plans mooted today by the former director of public prosecutions.
Sir Keir Starmer, part of Labour’s ‘victims taskforce’, said there is a growing consensus that the criminal justice system does not serve victims well.
Writing in the Guardian, he said many, particularly those who have experienced sexual violence, lack the confidence to come forward and report a crime and when they do, lack adequate support and face an ‘unacceptable ordeal’ in court.
Ahead of the taskforce’s first meeting today, Starmer, who stood down as DPP last year, said measures previously deemed ‘no go’ should be considered.
One such area is the notion that it no longer be the role of advocates to question young and vulnerable witnesses; instead giving the task to judges, blending adversarial and inquisitorial systems.
Said Starmer: ‘The idea that if the prosecution and defence attack each other as fiercely as possible the truth will somehow pop out has its attractions, but for particularly young and vulnerable witnesses there are obvious downsides.
He also suggested that victims should no longer have to attend a police station to report personal or sexual violence and that it should be mandatory for those working with children to report suspicions of sexual abuse.
Last year, the former lord chief justice Lord Judge expressed concern over ‘bullying’ and repeated cross-examination of child witnesses by barristers for multiple defendants.
Giving the Bar Council’s annual law reform committee lecture, he suggested that child witnesses be kept out of court altogether, giving their evidence – both in chief and cross-examination – via interviews pre-recorded prior to trial.
Commenting on the Starmer’s proposal, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association Nigel Lithman QC said: ‘We should not underestimate the ability of advocates to balance representation and yet remain within the adversarial process.
‘There must be steps put in place to ensure all advocates receive appropriate training. This does not men that the duty that befalls them should be abrogated and left to the judge. Their function in court is entirely different.’
Meanwhile, the Crown Prosecution Service has today published a new set of standards for prosecutors, putting victims at its heart. Four casework quality standards replace the previous 12, with emphasis on what victims can expect from prosecutors.
DPP Alison Saunders said: 'The work we do delivering justice for the public we serve is a vital part of a functioning democracy and the public should know what to expect from us, particularly when it comes to the quality of our casework and our work with victims.'