Lawyers offered free training for sex offence cases
Programme will ensure solicitor and barristers help vulnerable witnesses communicate evidence
Solicitor advocates and barristers who question vulnerable witnesses involved in serious sexual offences will undergo bespoke training, the Law Society and Bar Council have announced.
The advocacy and the vulnerable training programme aims to ensure vulnerable witnesses, such as children and people with learning difficulties, are protected and not subjected to harsh questioning and undue stress. The training will also include techniques used to question defendants.
‘Victims and witnesses who feel secure in the courtroom are more likely to communicate vital evidence effectively’, explained president of the Law Society, Robert Bourns.
The chairman of the Bar, Chantal-AimÃ©e Doerries QC, added: ‘Giving evidence can be difficult or intimidating, especially for vulnerable witnesses, and what they have to say is often vital to the outcome of the case.
‘Using specific techniques for cross-examination helps vulnerable witnesses to feel more secure and means that they are more likely to give their best and most accurate evidence. That is in the interests of the witnesses themselves and the interests of justice.
‘This training programme takes us a step further by developing less intrusive questioning techniques and adapting them for children and vulnerable adults.’
The programme, which will be rolled out across England and Wales from December, was developed by a cross-professional working group comprised of experienced members of the profession and led by His Honour Judge Rook QC.
Fifty nominated lead facilitators, made up of members of the Bar, judges, Crown Prosecution Service advocates, and solicitor advocates have now been trained and, in turn, will train other facilitators in the future. The Law Society and Bar Council will deliver the training to their members by 2018 and it is expected to become mandatory for publicly-funded advocates.
‘Witnesses are fundamental to the criminal justice system. Giving evidence can be a traumatic and intimidating experience and the pressure and unfamiliarity of court proceedings for witnesses cannot be underestimated,’ said Bourns.
‘While significant progress has been made over the past two decades to support vulnerable witnesses during a trial, more can be done. Stress can affect the ability of a witness to tell their story in a courtroom. This training programme ensures that solicitor advocates and barristers play their part in helping witnesses so they are best able to communicate their evidence. We look forward to working with the Bar Council to develop and deliver this training.’
Since R v Sandor Jones  EWCA Crim 562 there has been a ‘clear prohibition on unnecessarily repetitive cross-examination’, explained Doerries QC. The judge in the case, which involved the prosecution of trafficking for sexual exploitation, held that cross-examination of a vulnerable witness could be limited where co-defending counsel had already covered an issue.
Giving judgment, Lady Justice Hallett said: ‘Advocates must accept that the courts will no longer allow them the freedom to conduct their own cross-examination where it involves simply repeating what others have asked before or exploring precisely the same territory. For these purposes, defence advocates will now be treated as a group and, if necessary, issues divided amongst them provided of course that there is no unfairness in so doing.’
Matthew Rogers is a legal reporter at Solicitors Journal