Skip to main content

Vulnerable Witnesses

Volume 568: debated on Tuesday 15 October 2013

3. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to ensure that adequate provision is made to support vulnerable witnesses in sexual abuse or domestic violence cases. (900460)

7. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to ensure that adequate provision is made to support vulnerable witnesses in sexual abuse or domestic violence cases. (900464)

The Crown Prosecution Service takes allegations of sexual abuse and domestic violence very seriously and ensures that prosecutors are well equipped to handle those cases. There is also the national network of witness care units, whose role is to support victims. The House will want to know that the Director of Public Prosecutions will publish final guidelines on prosecuting cases of child sexual abuse shortly.

I thank the Solicitor-General for his answer. Will he also look at what more can be done to support those who have been the victims of psychological or emotional abuse, because although there is no physical effect, the mental trauma can be quite debilitating?

My hon. Friend’s contribution is timely, as we have recently had mental health day. He is right that it is important to support such victims and witnesses, which is what the witness care units do. In addition, there is a range of guidance for prosecutors on issues such as the provision of therapy to vulnerable and intimidated witnesses. With regard to victims who have suffered mental trauma, there is guidance on how to help victims and witnesses with mental health issues, and the CPS also contributed to the Mind toolkit.

Will my hon. and learned Friend outline what the special measures will be, how they will be granted for vulnerable witnesses and how they will help the court process to ensure that the trial is fair for all, particularly those witnesses in these very difficult cases?

The special measures available for vulnerable or intimidated witnesses include: giving evidence from behind a screen, by live television link or in private by clearing the court room of the public; removal of wigs and gowns by judges and lawyers; use of video-recorded evidence-in-chief; examination of the witness through an intermediary; and provision of communication aids. Many of us are strong supporters of one special measure, pre-recorded cross-examination, for which I think there is a measure of support across the House. It has not yet been implemented, but it is coming soon.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.

Children have particular difficulty in communicating, and registered intermediaries are crucial in enabling them to give the best possible evidence in court, but they are being appointed in a tiny minority of cases. What more can the Solicitor-General do to make sure that the Crown Prosecution Service appoints better registered intermediaries for children at an early stage?

As the hon. Lady will remember, that is one of the six issues that is being considered. I agree that it is important to ensure that the right support is given in every case. Of course, support would not be needed in every case, but where it is, it should be available.

The Solicitor-General will know that the specialist domestic courts that were established under the previous Labour Government helped to speed up prosecutions and reduce attrition. Why, then, have his Government gone about closing them down?

Although referrals are down, the proportion of the caseload that is domestic violence or rape cases has held up strongly, so I do not think the hon. Gentleman’s allegation stands up. However, it is certainly true that we need to ensure that these cases are dealt with expeditiously.

I thank the Attorney-General for the report he commissioned, following our meeting with the Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate, on the disclosure of medical and counselling records of victims of sexual abuse and rape. Will he or the Solicitor-General meet me to discuss the implementation of these recommendations and the need for further action in related areas?

As my hon. Friend knows, the Attorney-General and I were very grateful for her intervention in this regard. The report from Her Majesty’s inspectorate bears that out, and either one or both of us would be happy to meet her to discuss taking this forward.

May I draw the Solicitor-General’s attention to the experience of one of my constituents who has been identified as a potential witness in a case of serious sexual abuse going back over many, many years? This has caused him great distress, and, frankly, he is not receiving the support that he desperately needs. Will the Solicitor-General and the Attorney-General look again at what more can be done to support vulnerable witnesses over the many months they have to wait while their case comes to trial?

If the right hon. Gentleman writes to me I will make sure that the case is given whatever extra support is needed. As regards the point he makes, he is absolutely right. As somebody who has prosecuted these cases, I know that having a properly supported witness who feels confident in giving evidence is key.

I am currently dealing with a case where a vulnerable witness has been forced to leave her own home as a result of the abuse she has suffered, and the offender is now walking around and living in that house. Does the Solicitor-General agree that that is an absolutely disgraceful situation? If I send him the full details, will he look into it and find ways in which I can help this constituent?

I would be more than happy to discuss the case with my hon. Friend. Obviously it is difficult for me to comment, not having seen the papers, but I make that offer.