Child witnesses should be kept out of the courtroom and give their evidence via prerecorded videos, the former lord chief justice said today.

Giving the Bar Council’s annual law reform committee lecture, Lord Judge said the requirement for the physical presence of a child witness or victim in the court building should be seen as an ‘antediluvian hangover from laughable far off days of the quill pen and the ink well’.

Each year around 40,000 children and very young adults give evidence in criminal cases. The speech follows concerns about high-profile cases in which child victims and witnesses were subjected to repeated cross-examination by counsel for numerous defendants in the same case.

Judge called for an end to the repeated cross examination of child witnesses by barristers for multiple defendants and for the end of the 'bullying' cross examination of children.

Instead, he said, the whole of the child’s evidence, including any cross-examination, should be taken out of court and be recorded in advance of the trial. He argued the jury does not have to see the child physically present in the court, but can do justice by examining the video evidence, and then observe the cross-examination at what is no longer a face to face ‘confrontation’ with the defendant’s advocate, but a ‘long-distance encounter’ between them through the use of modern technology.

The assumption, he said, should be that the child will not come to court. Instead they will go to a safe quiet place, if necessary with the court usher or with a trained member of Witness Support to ensure that proper precautions are taken to avoid influence or interference.

Judge said he had no doubt that advocates on both sides would complain ‘that they are dealing with Hamlet without the prince’, but he stressed the process would improve the ‘quality and reliability’ of evidence, prompt better pre-trial decision making by both sides and reduce the emotional content of any trial. 

Importantly, he said, taking the child’s evidence long before the trial would enable the child to come to terms with the events described and begin any process of healing.

Judge suggested the same rules could be applied to other victims, particularly of sexual offences. ‘Perhaps therefore we are at the very beginning of what will become a significant change in the entire trial process, a consequence of modern technology, properly applied to the administration of justice… without increasing the possibility that an innocent defendant would be convicted.’

The position of the child defendant, said Judge, is ‘more complex’.  He said the child defendant should not be deprived of the right to be present in court.