I fully support new clause 4. It links very tightly to my new clause 20, which I would like to speak to. New clause 20 would mean that once a witness was determined to be eligible for special measures, they would be informed of all provisions and able to decide which option suited them best, rather than the onus being on the court to decide which ones they were allowed. Special measures are an absolute lifeline for many victims giving evidence in court against their abuser. Navigating the criminal justice system can be incredibly challenging, and the idea of giving evidence as a witness against your own perpetrator is extremely distressing. Cross-examination causes re-traumatisation for victims and special measures are vital for reducing the impact on their mental wellbeing. Special measures include screening the witnesses from the accused, giving evidence by a live link and in private, and video- recorded evidence. Currently, victims of child sexual abuse are eligible for special measures in court when giving evidence as a witness. However, delivery of the provisions remains inconsistent and victims often have trouble accessing the measures to which they are entitled.
The onus is currently on the court to offer the provisions to the victim if it believes it will
“improve the quality of evidence”
by witnesses—so is not about the survivor’s mental wellbeing and abilities. An APPG on adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse survey found that 44% of victims were not offered the opportunity to give evidence remotely or behind a screen.
This new clause would amend the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act to ensure that once a witness was determined as eligible for special measures by the court, they would be informed of all options and could decide which measure or measures suited them best. It is worth saying that some survivors I work with actually want to be in court and face their abuser—but it is up to them to make that choice.
This amendment will provide what is best for the witness’s wellbeing, rather than if the judge thinks it will improve the quality of evidence. There was support for this proposal in the Bill Committee’s evidence sessions. Phil Bowen, Director of the Centre for Justice Innovation, said:
“Yes, I think a presumption would be useful, but I think it also requires attention to implementation and delivery issues. Special measures should already be used in specialist domestic abuse courts across our magistrates court estate and, in many cases, domestic abuse victims are without access to those measures, for want of anyone who asked.”––[Official Report, Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Public Bill Committee, 18 May 2021; c. 43.]
Adrian Crossley, Head of the Criminal Justice Policy Unit at the Centre for Social Justice, said of special measures:
“I think it makes a massive difference to the view of the complainant and, unfortunately, it would also make a massive difference to the view of some defendants, who may face the reality of the evidence against them earlier. It may encourage pleas that should have happened earlier.”
“Sometimes the implementation of special measures and, certainly, the pragmatics of what happens in court are not there and the stress that that puts witnesses through is absolutely huge.”––[Official Report, Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Public Bill Committee, 18 May 2021; c. 46.]
As we have seen too vividly with the rape review findings, lack of support for witnesses and victims in court proceedings has a genuine impact on the justice process. More than a quarter of child sexual abuse cases did not proceed through the criminal justice system last year because the victim and survivor did not support further action. One of the main reasons was that the victim worried they would find the legal process too upsetting.
The Minister may say that we should keep the law so that it is the quality of evidence that remains, because that matters the most. I say to the Government that it is obvious that when we prioritise the wellbeing of victims and survivors—the people giving the evidence—the conviction is more likely to be secured because they feel more able to speak. If the victim assumes that they will be re-traumatised in the court proceedings, why on earth would they even try to secure justice? If that is the assumption, more offenders will walk free.
Dame Vera Baird, the Victims’ Commissioner, also agreed with this proposal. In her view, the problem begins
“with the fact that the needs assessment is not done clearly by a single agency.”––[Official Report, Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Public Bill Committee, 20 May 2021; c. 113.]
It needs to be carried out as part of the witness care unit, rather than across the Crown Prosecution Service and police, as it currently does. Dame Vera Baird also said that the measures that may best suit the victim are not always available. Special measures are not consistently available across the country.
What will the Minister do to ensure that resources and funding are sufficient to support victims giving evidence? Some witnesses who gave evidence have claimed that special measures should remain available at the discretion of the judge. The Minister may use that argument in the Government’s response to my new clause. However, we know that the current system is letting victims down, and something needs to be done so that it is legally required that they have these options available to them. The majority of court proceedings have taken place via a live link since the pandemic began. What reason is there to refuse the same provision to vulnerable witnesses? Let us be frank: the court is not always functioning with the victim’s best interests at the centre of its decisions. This change would grant vulnerable witnesses much more autonomy over their experience in court, rather than the courts relying on who and how they are able to give evidence—the same courts that have let so many down.
If it were better for special measures to be left to the flexibility of the court rules, we would not have a situation where victims wait years to give evidence, and often then face their abuser in court. Additionally, under this new clause, the court would still be included in the decisions. It would still have to ensure that the measures or measures provided
“do not inhibit the evidence of the witnesses being effectively tested by a party to the proceedings.”
As the Victims’ Commissioner said, it should be the default position that victims, if they choose, can pre-record their video evidence weeks, months or years before the trial takes place. Not only would that be less traumatic for them, but it means the recollections are more current and therefore more reliable.
Cross-examination can also take place on video under section 28 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act. This is particularly useful to reduce the huge backlog that the courts currently face, and these measures already exist. We just need to make sure that victims can access them as they should. The Government need to ensure that implementation is effective, and that the courts are fully resourced for it. More funding must be given to courts to provide places for vulnerable witnesses to give evidence securely, and ISVAs must also be available and dramatically expanded, so I am glad that the Minister has said that as part of the review she will actively look to employ more ISVAs.
I hope the Government listen to this argument and address the issue urgently, so that no more victims have to suffer the traumatising process of giving evidence without access to special measures.