Specialist judges to preside over child sex cases

Two initiatives have been announced by the Lord Chief Justice, in response to a recommendation by the Home Affairs Committee of the House of Commons that there should be specific guidance and training for judges who preside over cases of child sexual exploitation.


First, in all serious sex cases likely to last over 10 days or where, regardless of the length of the trial, one or more of the witnesses is significantly vulnerable, and in all other cases in which a significantly vulnerable witness is to be called in circumstances that call for especially sensitive handing regardless of the nature of the trial or the length of the trial, the case will only be tried by a judge selected on a case-by-case basis by the resident judge and approved by a presiding judge.

Second, resident judges are to be asked to draw up a list of the limited number of judges who are likely to be selected, to be approved by the senior presiding judge. The Judicial College will then provide bespoke training for those on the list. This will focus particularly on how best to conduct trials involving significantly vulnerable witnesses, as well as addressing the difficulties posed by multi-defendant trials in this context. Both steps will be “carefully monitored”.

Lord Judge rejected a further proposal of setting up specialist courts, on the basis that they would lead to greater waiting times and would be expensive to set up and run. However, he said: “It is no secret that I am of the view that more radical options should be considered to reduce – indeed, if possible, entirely to avoid – the need for children to be exposed to the trauma that inevitably accompanies giving evidence in court.”

He warmly welcomed the announcement of pilots which allow for the early recording of the entirety of the evidence of young witnesses under s 28 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999.

Lord Judge’s initiatives were announced a few days before HH Judge Nigel Peters QC gave a suspended sentence to a man who pleaded guilty to one count of sexual activity with a child; the judge stating on the facts that the 13-year-old girl had been predatory and had “egged on” the defendant, replicating language used by the barrister for the prosecution.

The Crown Prosecution Service, which said that the “word predatory in this context should not have been used” and was “not consistent with the work that we have undertaken alongside the judiciary and others in the past year to improve attitudes towards victims of abuse”, confirmed that it would not be instructing the barrister in sexual offence cases while the Director of Public Prosecutions carried out a review.

The Office for Judicial Complaints has received a number of complaints about the remarks and the sentence has been drawn to the attention of the Attorney General’s office as possibly unduly lenient.

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