After a lengthy trial at Nottingham Crown Court, a jury has just convicted a man of raping his partners, controlling and coercive behaviour, blackmail and sexual abuse of a child. His offending spanned a period of 20 years.

It was my privilege to present the evidence to prosecute this case which required the collective skill and legal knowledge of four counsel – two to prosecute and two to defend. Preparation included over 100 hours of watching videos, distilling 20,000 abusive messages, ss 41 and 28, bad character, cross-admissibility, special measures, false assumptions and consideration of pre-2003 and post-2004 law.

Four separate women – who felt that no one would believe them – and a child with the same mindset were heard and validated. This hugely important work, allowing complainants who allege violence against them which includes rape and serious sexual offences (RASSO) to have their cases heard in court is said to be a priority, whichever political party is in power. RASSO cases present unique challenges and require significant skills in advocacy and legal knowledge in this ever-changing legal landscape.

Supporting this essential field of excellence

The ability for the government to deal with the higher number of RASSO cases, once they have been charged, depends on the timeliness of the court processes and concomitant quality of advocacy in order to ensure fair trials.

The quality of criminal barristers to test all the relevant evidence before them in our tried and tested adversarial system has perhaps never been more acute, as RASSO cases back up in record numbers. Complainants and defendants alike experience renewed trauma as they await trial dates and for there to be the best available criminal barrister to represent their interests in court, only to see both trial dates repeatedly postponed amid shortages of criminal barristers to prosecute and defend all manner of cases but in particular, a worsening supply of suitably qualified and experienced to handle the complexities of RASSO cases.

The Criminal Bar Association (CBA) has always put the calibre of counsel’s work at the heart of our long-standing profession. We appreciate the privilege of prosecuting on behalf of the public and providing equally talented and professional representation to those who find themselves accused of crime, regardless of their background or means.

In order to continue to provide excellence in representation, the CBA is launching a bespoke RASSO training programme for criminal barristers who take on this important and complex work; one which enables us all to take account of the width and breadth of learning in this essential field of excellence.

The CBA aim is to enable all barrister practitioners across England and Wales with expertise in this vital work to be able to receive all the information that they require in one accessible place. We are grateful to the Bar Council and the Circuit Leaders for their support and input, and to the Inns of Court College of Advocacy (ICCA), CBA Education and RASSO groups, judiciary, Crown Prosecution Service, academics, psychiatrists, psychologists, the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales and the London Victims’ Commissioner for working collaboratively with us.

Most RASSO cases last for less than a fortnight so there is a relentless workload of running one case while preparing for the next and the next. The trauma suffered by those who have been raped and those who are falsely accused of rape lasts a lifetime. It impacts on us too. The reward of allowing a victim to be heard or allowing a person falsely accused to return to their life and their family is a reason to continue but resentment builds up when the renumeration for this work is far less than for, for example, a £31,000 fraud. Attempts to redress the balance have failed. We are told that there is no money. Resentment builds up when these complex cases are not fixed when counsel are available and when there is no flexibility if the trial before overruns and we need a case to go back a day. The pre-trial work in a RASSO case takes days. It is not renumerated. The number of barristers willing to continue this vital work is reducing day by day.

The initiative by the Senior Presiding Judge to bring forward rape cases that have been awaiting trial for year is commendable. If we cannot retain and recruit many more counsel to conduct this specialist work then those accused and their accusers will wait longer for cases to be heard. Never has there been a more urgent time for the Criminal Bar Association to launch a national training programme.

The law in respect of RASSO cases is ever-changing and runs alongside practice directions, case law, new medical and forensic methodologies and new learning in respect of trauma. The rate of rape conviction post-charge has remained high for over a decade at approaching 70%. However, concerns remain about rates – mistakenly using numbers of allegations reported to police rather than a justice measure based on cases sufficient to charge has led to academic research on juror misconceptions and criticisms of questioning methods used by criminal advocates. All the lessons learnt to maintain public confidence and continue with the delivery of fair trials must be absorbed and used by practitioners who are already at breaking point.

Provided by expert practitioners at no cost

The course will be delivered partly in-person on Circuit and partly online. There will be advocacy training for prosecution and defence to enable each to put their respective cases with the best techniques currently available. We will have the benefit of all of those working with us to ensure that questions are focused and free from aggression and unpleasantness. Interestingly, in the recent excellent Nuffield Foundation research into cross-examination, the only examples of sarcastic and unpleasant cross-examination noted were to defendants not complainants. Defendants also have rights.

The excellent work undertaken by the ICCA on vulnerable witness training will be expanded to include complainants and defendants in RASSO cases which will take account of all the new developments in questioning techniques and learning in trauma. The Bar Council’s new methods of distance learning will be incorporated. We will ensure that all practitioners are kept up to date with legal developments and the ever-changing regime of special measures. Techniques will be taught to make the best use of technology and the current resources.

This groundbreaking training regime will include learning and refresher training in law, advocacy, questioning techniques, trauma, memory, disclosure, third party material, trial strategy, academic and medical developments, child witnesses and child defendants, historic cases, drafting of indictments, sentencing, appellate work, and it will be provided not just to all defence but also to prosecution barristers across England and Wales by the most expert practitioners in their field at no cost.

Persuading others to train and return

This approach is essential if we are to ensure that our excellence in provision of this work continues and that the high quality of equal representation as between defence and prosecution remains. Further, we seek to try to persuade others to train and undertake this work, and convince those who have left to return to do this work. We will do all that we can to continue to provide excellence. In return we seek a fee structure which recognises that these cases matter.