A statue of the scales of justice. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Vulnerable witnesses, including children and people with learning difficulties, should not be subject to unnecessarily harsh questioning in court, according to new guidelines developed by the egal profession.
A free training programme for advocates in England and Wales who deal with serious sexual offences is being launched by the Bar Council, which represents barristers, the Law Society, which represents solicitors, the Crown Prosecution Service and other legal bodies.
The chair of the Bar Council, Chantal-Aimée Doerries QC, said: “Giving evidence can be difficult or intimidating, especially for vulnerable witnesses, and what they have to say is often vital to the outcome of the case.
“Using specific techniques for cross-examination helps vulnerable witnesses to feel more secure and means that they are more likely to give their best and most accurate evidence. That is in the interests of the witnesses themselves and the interests of justice.”
She added: “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.”
Last year a court ruled that judges could limit cross-examination on the credibility of a complainant in cases where other lawyers had already covered the same ground. It related to a hearing where a woman had been cross-examined for a nearly a week about her past.
The issue was also raised after the suicide of Frances Andrade, a professional violinist, four years ago after giving evidence of sexual assault, although her despair was caused by the fear that she had not been believed by the court.