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In September last year the Crown Prosecution Service published guidance for advocates on better communication with all witnesses. Advocates receive mandatory training for cases involving vulnerable witnesses, and special measures for those witnesses are regularly used at court, including pre-recorded evidence, intermediaries, screens or the use of a video link.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in my experience as a former solicitor, witnesses, particularly the most vulnerable witnesses, want to be kept better informed as to the process of their case, to hear updates in a timely fashion, to be able to give evidence as quickly as possible without losing their right to be heard, and to be treated in the least intimidating way possible within the court process?
Indeed. It is important that we ensure that witnesses who are engaged in criminal trials, which will be difficult experiences for them at the best of times, understand what is happening in the case around them. I hope that my hon. Friend will be as encouraged as I am by the trials that have been run in three different Crown courts for pre-recorded cross-examination. That will enable vulnerable and young witnesses in particular to get their part in the trial out of the way and any further delays in that trial will not affect them. That is a huge step forward.
The right hon. Gentleman will know that manifestos are for Parliaments, not just for the first year of Parliaments, so we have a little time left. When we do bring forward proposals I am sure he will be encouraged to see ways in which we can help victims understand better what is happening in the cases in which they are involved, and help them have a less difficult experience within the criminal justice system. Having held ministerial responsibility for the system, the right hon. Gentleman knows full well that we will never be able to get to a place where giving evidence and being involved in criminal trials is easy for victims and witnesses, but we can make it less hard and we will bring forward proposals to do so.
The Solicitor General and I have regular conversations with the CPS about how we make sure that what prosecutors do assists victims and witnesses. My hon. Friend will understand that it is a prosecutor’s responsibility to prosecute a case on behalf of the state, not solely on behalf of a victim, but it is none the less important that victims are spoken to regularly and spoken to in a sensitive way by those who are involved in the prosecution.
May I, through the Attorney General, thank the Government for deciding to reverse their decision to close Stockport courthouse, which has excellent facilities for victims and witnesses? Given that Her Majesty’s inspectorate has said that services to victims and witnesses require improvement, can the right hon. Gentleman set out precisely what the Government will do to provide that?
The hon. Gentleman will know that the court estate is not part of my responsibilities, but I congratulate him on the success of his representations. In relation to victims and witnesses, there are a number of things that need to be done. Some will come from the Ministry of Justice; some, as I have indicated, come from encouraging prosecutors to do their job of interacting with victims and witnesses in a more effective way. We are making progress on that. Better communication, as I said, is important. Better training for prosecutors in dealing with cases, particularly where vulnerable witnesses or children are involved, is important and we are doing that too. Some of the measures that we are taking, which I referred to earlier, in respect of ways in which victims give evidence can also help in ensuring that the experience is distressing as little as possible.
Judges and legal advisers play a crucial role in assisting vulnerable witnesses in court. Is the Attorney General aware of the profound distress and demoralisation among legal advisers about the increased pressure that they are under because of the imposition of continued legal aid cuts and the effect on courts?
The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that legal aid is not part of my responsibilities, but I will say that in my experience—and, I am sure, in his—those who act in our courts on behalf of defendants and on behalf of the Crown do the very best they can to present the evidence clearly and give people the best possible experience of the trial process, and I have no doubt that they will continue to do so. He makes an important point that when it comes to the cross-examination of young or vulnerable witnesses, both advocates and the judiciary have a role in ensuring that it is conducted in the right way. I hope and expect that they will continue to play their part in doing so.