HC Deb 17 March 1997 vol 292 cc414-6W
Mr. Sumberg

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what plans he has to protect victims of rape and other offences from being personally cross-examined by unrepresented defendants; and if he will make a statement. [20741]

Mr. Howard

The Government wish to take steps to prevent the ordeal experienced by some victims of rape and other offences who have been personally cross-examined in court by unrepresented defendants. Therefore, we have undertaken a review into whether the prohibition on the cross-examination of child witnesses by unrepresented defendants in cases of sexual offences, violence and cruelty, which was introduced by the Criminal Justice Act 1991, should be extended to other cases.

In light of that review, I have concluded that it would be right for a discretionary scheme prohibiting unrepresented defendants from cross-examining vulnerable victims to be available to the courts for use in appropriate circumstances. Where a prohibition was imposed, cross-examination could be conducted only by a legal representative of the defendant.

Details of how the scheme would work, including the offences to which it should apply, will be considered further as part of the wide-ranging review of court procedures for vulnerable witnesses which was announced by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, on 23 January. This will enable the scheme to be developed in a co-ordinated way, alongside other issues covered by that review.

It is vital to encourage witnesses to come forward to give evidence against offenders and the Government have continually introduced measures to improve the treatment of victims and witnesses by the criminal justice system. A discretionary scheme to prevent cross-examianton by unrepresented defendants in appropriate cases is consistent with the Government's approach and will provide a valuable addition to existing witness protection measures.