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Friday, March 6, 1998 Published at 11:05 GMT


New protection for rape victims
image: [ Jack Straw's legislation would put questioning in the hands of lawyers ]
Jack Straw's legislation would put questioning in the hands of lawyers

The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, has confirmed that men accused of rape will not be able to cross-examine their victims in court.

The move is designed to prevent alleged rapists from forcing their victims to relive their ordeal in the witness box.

BBC Home Affairs Correspondent Jon Silverman reports on the Criminal Justice Bill (2'18")
The new legislation, to be introduced in the next session of parliament, is part of a series of proposals to protect vulnerable witnesses in trials for rape and other sexual offences.

The right of defendants to conduct their own defence is enshrined in the Criminal Procedure Act, 1865.

The changes follow concern in the criminal justice system about a fall in the number of prosecutions and convictions for rape even though more offences are being reported to the police.

Labour made a manifesto commitment to improve the rights of victims and witnesses.

[ image: Jack Straw was disturbed by previous cases]
Jack Straw was disturbed by previous cases
The Home Secretary said he was particularly disturbed by the case of Ralston Edwards, who cross-examined his victim in court for six days while wearing the same clothes in which he attacked her.

"I, like everyone else, have been disturbed about a system which allows rape victims to face lengthy cross-examination by their alleged attackers," Mr Straw said.

"I am determined we will stop putting victims through this traumatising experience."

Changes also in line for barristers

The Home Secretary said restrictions will also be imposed on the right of barristers to conduct lengthy cross-examinations of a witness's sexual history.

Barristers agreed that some changes to rape trials were needed.

A leading criminal lawyer, Christopher Sallon QC, said there is a good argument that rape cases should be in the same category as sexual offences on children.

Defendants accused of child sex abuse lost the right to examine victims in 1991.

"If you want to cross examine it's better done by a barrister in order that the rules of evidence can be kept to," Mr Sallon said.

However, he said there were already strong rules governing lines of questioning in rape trials and warned against bringing in further restrictions.

"I think it is a slippery slope once you start interfering in the way questions can be asked," Mr Sallon said.

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