CAMPAIGNERS, police and prosecutors have welcomed moves to spare survivors of sexual offences from the further distress in court.

Durham Crown Court is the first in the North East to allow victims of rape and serious sexual offences to have their cross-examination video pre-recorded and played later during the trial, in a move which is hoped will transform the way cases are prosecuted.

It is one of a handful of courts nationally which are piloting the scheme as part of  attempts to reduce trauma for victims, as well as improve the quality of their evidence by reducing the gap in time between the offence and testifying in court.

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Jo Farrell, Chief Constable of Durham Police, said: “This is an important step in protecting vulnerable victims and supporting them to give their best possible evidence in the safest way possible.

"Hopefully, it will also allay the fears some may have of giving evidence in a court room.

“This special measure allows victims to give their evidence and cross examined in advance of any trial so consequently they do not have to attend court unless they choose to.

“For a lot of victims, survivors and witnesses, giving evidence in court is a traumatic experience – this measure should reduce that stress and help victims begin the long process of moving on with their lives.”

Isabel Owens, deputy chief of executive of the Rape and Sexual Abuse Counselling Centre (RSACC) for Darlington and County Durham said she hoped it would improve the treatment of survivors in court.

She said: “We welcome any initiative that improves the experience and treatment of sexual violence survivors when they seek justice by taking their perpetrator to court.

"We know from the hundreds of survivors we support, just how harrowing and distressing court cross-examinations can be.

"This can also deter survivors from coming forward. So we also hope that this pilot will also encourage more survivors to report their perpetrator to the police.”

Durham was given the green light last week and police have identified 14 cases so far that may be suitable to use the process.

It is one of four new courts to introduce the Remote Evidence Link system following the Government’s Rape Review.

It is already in use in Liverpool, Leeds and Kingston-Upon-Thames and can also be used in modern slavery cases.

Tracy Easton, deputy chief crown prosecutor for CPS North East, said: “We continue to work closely with Durham Constabulary to further refine our approach to the investigation and prosecution of rape cases.

"We welcome the introduction of pre-recorded cross-examination, which will help to improve the experience of giving evidence for victims of rape.

“Through this initiative we hope that victims feel better supported to provide their best possible evidence against their attackers, which will greatly assist us in the robust prosecution of those committing rape offences.”

It is hoped that the new court process will lead to a higher proportion of charges resulting in conviction, by reducing the already considerable pressure on victims to wait months for justice and by encouraging an earlier guilty plea by their attackers.

The national average charging rape for reported rapes in just 4.8 per cent. In Durham, which has the highest charging rate for rape investigations in England and Wales, it is 9.7 per cent.

In the 12 months to September, 64 rapes resulted in a charge in the force area.

The force has also been chosen as a pilot project area for Project Soteria, a national programme designed to transform the police response to rape and sexual offences.

Project Soteria will see police professionals work alongside prominent academics to better understand a suspect’s behaviour to scrutinise decisions and ensure all reasonable lines of inquiry are explored.

It aims to improve victim experiences within the criminal justice system, with investigators working closely with Independent Sexual Violence Advisors, who provide specialist tailored support to victims and survivors of sexual violence.

Chief constable Farrell added: “Rape and other sexual offences are some of the most harmful and harrowing crimes that we as police officers investigate and that’s why tackling high-harm offences, including rape, is a top priority for Durham Constabulary.

“We know there is a long way to go in addressing some of the issues around the investigation and prosecution of sexual offences, but any measure which makes that process easier for victims and increases the number of rapists that we convict and ultimately jail is a very welcome step in the right direction.”

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