Judges must be more aware of the pressures faced by vulnerable witnesses in criminal cases, according to the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales.
Speaking to around 100 lawyers, judges, magistrates and judicial officers gathered last night (7 September) in the Federal Court of Australia for the opening of the 2011 Australasian Institute of Judicial Administration's Criminal Justice Conference, The Rt Hon Lord Igor Judge highlighted the plight of vulnerable witnesses in the criminal justice system.
Pinpointing victims of sexual crime, violent crime, children and witnesses lacking communication skills, Judge said the principle of "innocent until proven guilty" often had "extremely painful" consequences for those who are victims of crime or who have given truthful evidence about the facts of a case.
"Many times in law, it is not even established that there has been a crime until the defendant has been convicted. If the allegation is rape, it's not until there's a verdict of guilty that, as a matter of law, there has been a victim at all," said Judge, adding that "in truth" there has been a victim from the very moment the rape occurred.
"The words 'innocent until proven guilty' trip off the tongue very simply, but there can be no compromise with that principle, and it is dishonoured when hurried lip service is paid to it," he said.
Judge said that while the profession has made significant progress in its handling of vulnerable witnesses, judges and magistrates must remain informed about the fact that witnesses who are vulnerable are under huge pressure.
"Every single witness should, so far as possible, have the stresses of attendance and so on reduced ... none of this is at the expense of the fairness of the defendants' trial," said Judge.
Lord Judge's address officially opened the AIJA conference, themed 'Issues and Challenges for Judicial Administration', which is taking place in Sydney over the next two days.
Sessions will focus on issues relevant to the fairness of trials and the risks of wrongful convictions.
Topics will include the effect of cross-examination on minority groups, expert evidence, the role of social media and DNA evidence in the courtroom.
Sexual offence prosecutions will be the another main theme of the conference, with Professor Kathleen Daly from Griffith University's School of Criminology and the Victorian Supreme Court of Appeal's Justice Marcia Neave discussing new approaches to sex offence prosecutions..
Other presentations will cover cyber crime, the problems associated with long and complex terrorism trials, the role of statistics in the sentencing debate, and multicultural justice issues such as the cross-examination of niquab-wearing Muslim witnesses and delivering justice in newly-arrived African communities.
Check Lawyers Weekly later today and tomorrow for extended coverage of the conference.