Rape victims could be asked if they want to give evidence in closed courtroom amid new push to clear public galleries and improve low conviction rate
- Public galleries would be cleared to support alleged victims of sexual assault
- Judges rarely decide to close public galleries during sex attack trials in England
- Prosecutors say they will ask more victims if they want to use the new measure
Rape victims will be asked if they want to give evidence in closed courts in a drive to improve the shockingly low conviction rate.
It would see public galleries cleared to support complainants when they have to reveal intimate details of their ordeals from the witness box.
Judges have long had the power to close public galleries during sex attack trials to protect victims and ensure justice is done, but it rarely happens in England and Wales.
Now prosecutors and police say they will ask more victims if they want to use the measure as concern grows at how few rape allegations lead to charges or trials.
Judges have long had the power to close public galleries during sex attack trials to protect victims and ensure justice is done, but it rarely happens in England and Wales
Last night Victims’ Commissioner Dame Vera Baird said: ‘The power to close the public gallery during the complainants’ evidence session has been available to judges since 1999 – along with other special measures – but this power is rarely exercised. This needs to change.
‘If victims are to feel they can give their best evidence, this power needs to be fully and frequently in use and victims need to feel protected. Giving evidence as a victim of crime can be a daunting and distressing experience.
‘This is especially true for victims of serious crimes like rape and stalking, where intimate and upsetting events need to be recalled. Victims often worry that someone in the gallery may recognise them and render their anonymity meaningless, or there may be a fear of being watched by the defendant’s family and feeling intimidated as a result.’
Now prosecutors and police say they will ask more victims if they want to use the measure as concern grows at how few rape allegations lead to charges or trials. Pictured: Newcastle Crown Court
Last year 55,130 rapes were recorded by police in England and Wales but there were just 2,102 prosecutions and 1,439 convictions – a record low. And as the Mail revealed last week, record numbers of witnesses and victims are dropping out of court cases because of Covid delays. The results of a government ‘end-to-end review’ of rape cases will be published in months.
Meanwhile, judgment is awaited in a legal challenge to the Crown Prosecution Service’s rape prosecution policy, which campaigners claim led to ‘weaker’ cases being unlawfully dropped.
Director of Public Prosecutions Max Hill, QC, believes more courtroom privacy would help complainants give better evidence, although senior judges have expressed concerns it would lead to claims of secret trials.
Last year 55,130 rapes were recorded by police in England and Wales but there were just 2,102 prosecutions and 1,439 convictions – a record low. Pictured: Blackfriars Crown Court
A CPS spokesman said: ‘We are raising awareness of available measures with our specially trained prosecutors, including the use of the clearance of the public gallery measure, and will continue to work across the justice system to ensure every victim receives the support they need.’ Judges can clear public galleries during sexual offence trials under the 1999 law, with only the defendant, lawyers and one journalist allowed to stay in court.
But a report for the Victims’ Commissioner last year found that the power ‘appears to be very scarcely used in England and Wales’.
Some lawyers, however, have concerns about rape trials being partly held behind closed doors.
James Mulholland QC, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, said it was better for witnesses to have their cross-examination recorded before trial.
He added: ‘A system has been rolled out nationally … which allows the evidence of children and vulnerable witnesses to be video-recorded before the trial and represents one of the greatest changes to the court process in a generation. This helps maintain open justice whilst guarding against the very real risk of complainants walking away from cases before they reach trial.’
The Centre for Women’s Justice, involved in the judicial review against the CPS, said: ‘Many survivors find giving live evidence to be deeply traumatic, so measures to mitigate this are welcomed.
‘However, survivors usually chose video-link because they do not wish to be in the room with their assailant and clearing the gallery would not deal with that.’