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Specialist panel of child abuse judges "will protect victims and witnesses"
A move to ensure child victims of sexual abuse receive greater protection in criminal trials through the introduction of a hand-picked panel of specialist judges has been welcomed by specialist lawyers.
The plan, to be announced today (Wednesday 7 August) by the Lord Chief Justice, is a response to growing concerns about the treatment of young witnesses under cross-examination, particularly during lengthy trials featuring multiple defendants.
Angela Dobbs, a specialist child abuse lawyer and partner with Fentons Solicitors LLP, said that any proposed changes which would help make the process of prosecuting offenders less difficult for those giving evidence should be welcomed.
“Over the last few months we have seen a number of high profile convictions in abuse cases, and people are beginning to feel that if they come forward they will be believed by the authorities,” said Angela. “A few years ago this might not have been so.”
Angela, a member of the Association of Child Abuse Lawyers, said that although the number of cases being brought to court has increased and the conviction rate has improved, vulnerable victims are still being subjected to not only facing their abusers in court - effectively reliving the abuse - but also to overly aggressive questioning, often over a period of days. “In some cases, for example where there are multiple offenders, the victim will be repeatedly questioned by a number of different defence barristers,” she said.
“Many victims are not only vulnerable because they are young but also because of other issues for which they are criticised and doubted in court. Often victims have feelings of shame and guilt, which can delay a victim from making a complaint. The court setting is often intimidating and adversarial, and accusations are made against victims by the defence.”
Angela said a recent high profile case where a complainant committed suicide shortly after giving evidence highlighted the level of distress involved.
“Victims are subjected to further trauma as a result of the court process and the level of often unnecessary and lengthy questioning,” she said. “This serves as a deterrent for victims in coming forward to report the abuse in the first place, let alone proceeding with a prosecution.
“Whilst evidence needs to be tested, it needs to be done so in a sensitive way. People who have been abused or sexually assaulted will be vulnerable, particularly at the time of the criminal trial.
“More protection for the victims and witnesses needs to be built into the court process,” said Angela. “A panel of specialist judges will hopefully be a considerable step in the right direction and help to correct the current issues and the way that victims and witnesses are treated.”
Read more at: ITV News, The Times
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