By John Cooper QC
The Crown Prosecution Service has agreed to pay a woman £16,000 as a result of its conduct during a failed prosecution of a defendant alleged to have sexually assaulted her. The errors included the failure to provide the witness with screens, behind which she could give her evidence at trial.
Justice cannot be served, nor can the public have faith in the Criminal Justice System, if witnesses of truth are deterred from giving their evidence in court at trial.
Over the last decade, there has been statutory provision of various methods to assist and promote the provision of reliable evidence in the criminal courts, spearheaded by the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, which originally introduced special measures in the cases of vulnerable or intimidated witnesses. Any party to proceedings can apply for measures to assist them in giving reliable evidence, including the provision of screens to hide their identity or enable them to give their account, without having to face the defendant, particularly important in cases of sexual assault allegations.
In practice, the defence will rarely object to such measures, and a prosecution application to a judge is, in usual circumstances, always granted.
This makes it particularly worrying that in the recent case where screens were not provided, a clearly vulnerable witness was forced to give evidence without any protection to assist reliability.
The case seems to go counter to the vast majority of trials in courts throughout the country, where all those who provide sensitive, professional input into the trial process ensure that witnesses are reassured, protected and confident to give truthful, reliable evidence.
Something clearly went wrong here, which is presumably why the CPS paid the witness £16,000, but it should not detract from the overwhelming majority of cases which utilise the significant panoply of options available to the courts to achieve justice and maintain the proper faith that the public have in the Criminal Justice System.