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Public galleries should be cleared when victims are giving evidence in rape trials in a bid to improve conviction rates, the Director of Public Prosecutions has suggested.
Max Hill QC said removing onlookers from the courtroom, including supporters of the defendant, would reduce the trauma suffered by victims and could help them give better evidence.
A large number of rape victims either do not report offences or withdraw from the justice system, because they find the process too upsetting.
While screens can be erected in court to shield them from their alleged attacker, victims will still be aware of their presence and usually have to give evidence in front of onlookers in the public gallery.
One rape victim said: “The experience was traumatising. I could see the public gallery and the friends of the perpetrator glared at me whilst I provided my evidence.”
Mr Hill urged lawyers and judges to make more use of existing powers to clear the court when a victim entered the witness box.
The measure, which is contained in section 25 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, is available regardless of whether the witness chooses to enter the courtroom to give evidence or does it entirely by video link. However, research has revealed that the measure is almost never used.
In a speech delivered to the National Criminal Justice Conference in Manchester, Mr Hill said removing the friends, family and supporters of the defendant from the public gallery would "go some small way to making the process easier for survivors".
He said it would allow them to give their best evidence and ensure the prosecution could present the best case possible.
Prosecutors ‘taking action’ on low conviction rates
Less than one per cent of reported rapes in England and Wales resulted in a conviction in 2019-20 and prosecutors have launched a major drive aimed at improving the figure.
Mr Hill told the justice conference: “The killings of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa created a watershed moment across society – and also in our ongoing work to address violence against women and girls.
“We know we are not where we want to be in tackling these crimes, but we are taking action. Sadly, we know many rape survivors either do not report an offence or withdraw from a prosecution because they find the criminal justice process too traumatic.
“We have listened to these concerns and are committed to improving every aspect of how we handle these offences so that victims feel supported to stay on board with a prosecution.
“We hope encouraging greater use of section 25 measures will go some small way to making the process easier for survivors and help them to give their best evidence so we can present the strongest possible case in court.”
Sarah Crew, the chief constable of Avon and Somerset Police and the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for adult sexual offences, said: “We have heard from victims how difficult it can be to recount traumatising and painful moments from their past when they appear in court, particularly in cases of sexual violence.
"When it is appropriate, and is granted by the judge, a clearance order will consider personal circumstances and allow a victim to provide their evidence in a setting where the public gallery is cleared.
“We will work closely with those who support and advocate for victims, including independent sexual violence advisors and independent domestic violence advisors, to identify where victims have fears and concerns and we will work with the CPS as early as possible in the process to ensure victims can make applications for a clearance order when it is appropriate to do so.”