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Vulnerable Witnesses to be Spared Trial Ordeal

Vulnerable Witnesses to be Spared Trial Ordeal

Changes to UK Legal System Proposed

Planned court reforms in England and Wales will enable vulnerable victims and witnesses to give evidence before a trial begins.

The Ministry of Justice has said that cross-examinations would be recorded in advance and then played in court, so sparing vulnerable people the stress of reliving traumatic events in open court.

These changes to court procedures are part of a £1bn modernization programme announced jointly by justice secretary, Elizabeth Truss, the lord chief justice, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, and the senior president of tribunals, Sir Ernest Ryder.

Witnesses better able to recall events

The proposed change comes after three pilot programmes at Liverpool, Leeds and Kingston upon Thames crown courts which showed that people felt under less pressure giving pre-trial evidence and that witnesses were better able to recall events. Many of the cases in the pilot programme involved sexual offences. Their cross-examinations were shown to juries during the trial.

At the moment, cross-examination of witnesses can take place in court only during the trial, although there are provisions to allow vulnerable people to give evidence from behind a screen or via video link. The prosecution can make use of a recorded police interview with the victim to reduce the time the individual must spend in court repeating the same account.

Judges are also able to halt excessively aggressive cross-examination of witnesses – but there are no limits on the duration of questioning or the number of lawyers who can question a witness or victim.

Elizabeth Truss said that children in particular would benefit from being able to give evidence in a less intimidating environment.

Other reforms are planned

The joint vision paper, called Transforming Our Justice System, proposes other reforms to the court system.

The paper wants the introduction of an online court that allows more defendants to plead guilty to some minor offences and to pay fines online. This is due to begin with offences involving dodging of transport fares. Only those cases where individuals plead guilty will be dealt with online. Defendants will be able to access an online system to see the evidence against them before entering a plea. If they plead guilty, they can opt in to an online system that allows them to view the penalty, accept the conviction and penalty, and pay their fine. Fines will be levied through the Ministry of Justice website.

There is a proposal to scrap paper forms and "go digital" in every court and tribunal in England and Wales. The Ministry of Justice says that more than 12m pages of evidence have already been put online and video link systems have been installed in 130 courts. Mobile video-link vans are being considered to provide a more flexible platform for links between the courts and prisons.

Meanwhile, legal jargon is to be replaced by simple language.

The proposed reforms are further to other changes that include allowing judges and lawyers in crown and magistrates’ courts to access wi-fi, their home computer systems and the internet to improve productivity and the efficiency of the court.

A justice system that works for everyone

The government is investing £700m to reform and modernise the courts and tribunal system. This is in addition to the £270m in funding to develop a fully connected criminal courtroom by 2020.

Ms Truss said: “We want a justice system that works for everyone. That means creating a system that is just, efficient and simple . . . We have the tools and the technology to cut unnecessary paperwork, to deliver swifter justice and to make the experience more straightforward."

“Most importantly these reforms will allow us to better protect victims and witnesses who can find the experience of reliving a traumatic event in court incredibly stressful,” added Ms Truss.

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