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Judges to be specially selected for trials involving vulnerable child witnesses

Lord Judge responds to Home Affairs Committee

Lord Judge, the outgoing Lord Chief Justice, has written to Keith Vaz MP, Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, in response to an invitation to consider specific guidance and training for judges who preside over cases of child sexual exploitation.

Lord Judge sets out the current arrangements for the authorisation and training of judges who hear such cases. He then proposes further steps to ensure, in particular, the protection of vulnerable witnesses.

His letter says:

"However, in light of the rare instances relating to multi-defendant trials in which the process may have operated imperfectly for at least some vulnerable witnesses, I have reviewed the position of the judges who conduct these trials and instituted – with the assistance of the Senior Presiding Judge and the Judicial College – the two particular steps set out hereafter.

First, the following cases will only be tried by a judge selected, on a case-by-case basis, by the Resident Judge and approved by a Presiding Judge:

All serious sex cases:

i) that are likely to last more than 10 days (this will cover all multi-defendant cases), or
ii) where one or more of the witnesses is significantly vulnerable, regardless of the probable length of trial.

AND

All other cases, irrespective of the nature of the charges and the length of the trial, in which a significantly vulnerable witness is to be called in circumstances that call for especially sensitive handling (e.g. by virtue of age, situation or the circumstances of the case).

Second, I have asked the Resident Judges at each Crown Court, in conjunction with the Presiding Judges, to draw up a list (for approval by the Senior Presiding Judge) of the limited number of judges who are likely to be selected to try these cases. The Judicial College has agreed to provide bespoke training for those identified that will focus particularly on how best to conduct trials involving significantly vulnerable witnesses, as well as addressing the undoubted difficulties posed by multi-defendant trials in this context.

The implementation of these steps will be carefully monitored, so as to ensure that only appropriately qualified judges are selected to try these important and difficult cases."

The announcement of the new measures coincides with concern as to the way some victims have been treated in court. The BBC reports that the Crown Prosecution Service has criticised a barrister acting on its behalf for describing a 13-year-old sex abuse victim in court as "predatory".

Lord Judge's letter can be read here.

A BBC News report concerning the CPS criticism of the barrister acting on its behalf can be read here.