Vera Baird

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Welcoming new guidelines for questioning vulnerable witnesses in court

22nd November 2016

Vulnerable witnesses, including children and people with learning difficulties, should not be subject to unnecessarily harsh questioning in court, say new guidelines developed by the legal profession and I completely agree with this stance and have said so for many years.

The Bar Council, which represents barristers, the Law Society, which represents solicitors, the Crown Prosecution Service and other legal bodies, has announced the launch of a free training programme advocates in England and Wales who deal with serious sexual offences.

Putting victims first and improving the criminal justice have been two key focuses for me since being elected as Northumbria PCC in 2012.

That is why I introduced a Court Observers Panel here in Northumbria, to examine, evaluate and ultimately improve the conduct of sexual offence trials. The panel carefully examines whether the complainant’s needs are being properly considered in each case, whether the impact of sexual abuse on the ability to testify is being properly taken into account during proceedings and any sense of the complainant or even the witness, being tried rather than the defendant. We know that giving evidence can be a difficult and intimidating experience, especially for those who are vulnerable. By improving the techniques used in cross-examination we can make witnesses feel more comfortable, which will undoubtedly help them to give their best, most accurate evidence.

If this training promotes consistent standards across the legal profession, which will increase confidence in the process for everyone, it is something I hugely welcome.

The chair of the Bar Council, Chantal-Aimée Doerries QC, said: “Since a ruling in 2015 there has been a clear prohibition on unnecessarily repetitive cross-examination, and in cases involving vulnerable witnesses, the length and nature of cross-examination must be agreed in advance at a hearing. This training programme takes us a step further by developing less intrusive questioning techniques and adapting them for children and vulnerable adults..