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Crown Prosecution Service: Victim and Witness Support

Volume 620: debated on Thursday 2 February 2017

1. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to support victims and witnesses giving evidence in court. (908564)

4. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to support victims and witnesses giving evidence in court. (908569)

Prosecutors can apply for special measures to allow victims and witnesses to give evidence in court unseen by the defendant. The Government are making available the opportunity for vulnerable witnesses to give pre-recorded evidence without going into a courtroom at all. In addition, recent CPS guidance, now implemented nationwide, makes it clear what prosecutors can do to explain what is likely to happen at court, so that victims and witnesses can better understand the trial process and give the best evidence they can.

I am encouraged by the Attorney General’s words, but half of all cases going through the courts at the moment are connected with sexual abuse, and with police investigating no fewer than 70,000 claims of historic child sex abuse this year alone, that figure is likely to remain high. Given the traumatising impact on historic survivors and children especially of reliving their experiences in the witness box, what additional measures are being taken to make the process less intimidating and ensure that appropriate counselling services are readily available?

I agree with my hon. Friend. It is important that the system does all it can to reduce the effect, particularly on vulnerable witnesses, of giving evidence in these difficult cases. That is why I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor has decided to extend what I believe was a successful pilot of pre-recorded cross-examination. It means that vulnerable witnesses, particularly children, can give their evidence outside a courtroom environment and have it all done and dusted before the trial begins, which also means that they are not affected by any delays that the trial may then be subject to. That is hugely important, as is the opportunity for prosecutors to speak to witnesses and explain what is going on, and I am pleased to say that that has resulted in much improved satisfaction rates among witnesses for the support they get from the CPS.

Will the Attorney General join me in thanking the NSPCC and Esther Rantzen for their campaigning work to reduce the intimidating environment in courts for children, and will he confirm how many children give evidence in court?

I will have to write to my hon. Friend with the figure he asks for, but I entirely agree with his comments about the NSPCC. It is worth noting that a variety of organisations assist tremendously in the work of the criminal justice system in making sure that all witnesses can give their best evidence. That is in the interests of the whole system, and it is particularly important when we are dealing with children.

I have only attended one trial—a murder trial—where, in the summing up, the family of the young lady who had been brutally murdered had to listen to an absolutely appalling character assassination. It was totally fraudulent, but they had to sit there and listen to that. Has anything been done to stop that horrible practice?

I understand entirely the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. He will recognise that in a criminal trial it is necessary that the defence case is put. That is what we need to see to make sure that the process is fair, but we are doing what we can to ensure that the experience of those who are in court not of their own volition—because they are the victim of an offence or a witness to it—is as easy as it can be, although we accept that it will never be wholly easy.

Will the Minister outline what steps have been taken to address the 2015 report by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate, which revealed that some vulnerable people are being let down by the inconsistency of approach to criminal case file management, and will he say how successful those steps have been?

I recognise the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. This was a troubling report in some ways. One of the most troubling aspects is the way in which victims of crime in particular are communicated with by the CPS—the language used and the sensitivity shown. My hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor General and I have been particularly keen to ensure that the CPS takes those lessons on board and acts on them, and I am confident that it is doing so.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. There are many people within the system, both defendants and witnesses, who have mental health difficulties and it is important that the system is sensitive to that. What we need to do is understand better what the particular needs of each witness may be and then respond to them as best we can. The way to do that is to have the maximum number of tools available and ways in which evidence can be given, whether that is pre-recorded cross-examination, as I have mentioned, or the assistance of others in court who can help those who give evidence.

Will the Attorney General ensure that no witness or defendant can give evidence to a court while wearing a full-face balaclava or the burqa?

What is important is that the court and in particular the jury can assess the evidence that a witness gives, so it is important that that witness is able to give evidence in a clear way, so that a jury can assess whether they think that witness is telling the truth or not. Anything that gets in the way of that, I am sure the court will wish to consider very carefully.