Vulnerable Victims and Witnesses

Attorney General – in the House of Commons at 9:30 am on 2nd July 2015.

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Photo of Keir Starmer Keir Starmer Labour, Holborn and St Pancras 9:30 am, 2nd July 2015

What recent discussions he has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on dealing with vulnerable victims and witnesses.

Photo of Jeremy Wright Jeremy Wright The Attorney-General

I discuss regularly with the Director of Public of Prosecutions support for vulnerable victims, including measures that the CPS can adopt or apply for in the trial process, and ongoing work between the CPS, the police and the voluntary sector.

Photo of Keir Starmer Keir Starmer Labour, Holborn and St Pancras

I declare an interest as a barrister and a former DPP. Does the Attorney General agree that the time has come for a comprehensive victims’ law, giving enforceable rights from the beginning of the process to the end of the process? If so, will he assure the House that there will be an early consultation on this important issue?

Photo of Jeremy Wright Jeremy Wright The Attorney-General

In welcoming the hon. and learned Gentleman to his place, I think he must win the prize for the most impressive declaration of interest so far this morning. He comes at the issue from a uniquely knowledgeable perspective and we are grateful to have him here.

Whether or not the rights of victims are expressed in legislation, there is no doubt that we have more to do to make sure that they are properly supported and informed about the processes of which they are a crucial part. The hon. and learned Gentleman did a huge amount of good work as the Director of Public Prosecutions to assist that process, and as he knows, there is a good deal more to be done. One of the areas we must look at, straightforwardly, is the opportunity for prosecuting lawyers to speak to victims and witnesses before and after hearings to make sure that they are clear about what is going to happen and what has happened. I think that would be a huge step forward and we will undoubtedly wish to consult the hon. and learned Gentleman and others about what else can be done.

Photo of David Mowat David Mowat Conservative, Warrington South

I have no legal qualifications whatsoever. Two years ago, a 13-year-old girl was subjected to three weeks of intimidatory and vicious cross-examination by a team of seven barristers—a process that she described as worse than the initial crime. Will the Attorney General update the House on what he is doing to stop such incidents being repeated?

Photo of Jeremy Wright Jeremy Wright The Attorney-General

On my hon. Friend’s declaration of interest, I would simply say that nobody is perfect.

My hon. Friend raises a very serious point. There is no doubt that there have been bad examples of cross-examination in criminal trials. Let us be clear: intimidatory cross-examination is never appropriate. Defence counsel is entitled to put its case to prosecution witnesses, but it should never do so in an intimidatory way. Judges should intervene if that happens, and they now have the power to set ground rules before cross-examination takes place, which is a step forward. As my hon. Friend will be aware, we are in the process of making another huge improvement, namely the piloting of pre-recorded cross-examination for young and vulnerable witnesses, which is much better for many of them. We shall look carefully at the results of those pilots, and if they are what we hope, I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor will wish to introduce the process more widely.

Photo of Karl Turner Karl Turner Opposition Assistant Whip (Commons), Shadow Solicitor General

I thank the Attorney General for calling me last weekend to brief me on the DPP’s decision to bring criminal proceedings against Greville Janner following the review by David Perry QC. Of course, we on this side of the House welcome that decision. It allows complainants to see the allegations aired before a jury and shows that the Crown Prosecution Service’s victims’ right to review scheme, which was implemented by the former DPP, my hon. and learned Friend Keir Starmer, is working as intended. I now hope that the future focus will be on ensuring that historical sex abuse cases are properly funded, so will the Attorney General give a commitment to the £50 million extra funding that the current DPP says she desperately needs to prosecute such cases?

Photo of Jeremy Wright Jeremy Wright The Attorney-General

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his opening remarks, but I shall start with his last point. On the upcoming spending round, he will understand that my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor General and I will do our very best to make sure that the CPS receives the funding it needs. We should pay tribute to the way in which the CPS has made necessary savings and still maintained a good service on the front line.

On the hon. Gentleman’s first point, he knows that it would be wholly wrong for me to say anything at all about the individual case of the noble Lord Janner. In any event, it would not be right for me to do so because, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the protocols for Law Officers are clear: we are not engaged in the detail of any potential prosecution against a parliamentarian.

Let me say this as a more general point: it is vital that our system has independent prosecutors—prosecutors who are independent of us as politicians—who make these difficult judgments. We should stand behind them when they do so, and the victims’ right to review, which the hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras introduced during his time as DPP, is a positive step to enable victims to challenge those decisions and, where appropriate, for those decisions to be changed. It seems to me that that system worked as it was designed to work in this case.