Rape case girl: Court failed me

A TEENAGE witness in a Suffolk rape trial, which collapsed when she was unable to continue giving evidence, has slammed the court system.

By Lisa Baxter

A TEENAGE witness in a Suffolk rape trial, which collapsed when she was unable to continue giving evidence, has slammed the court system.

The 16-year-old had accused a man of rape and indecent assault. Now she has called for a better organised court process to prevent a repeat of the hold-ups which left her feeling unable to carry on with her testimony.

The alleged rape victim, who cannot be named for legal reasons, asked her carer to write a letter of complaint to Ipswich Crown Court following the collapse of Michael Stewart's trial last month.

Ross Taylor, court manager, has pledged to discuss her criticisms with relevant partners in the criminal justice system and confirmed that judges in Ipswich will also see if lessons can be learned from the case.

Judge Peter Thompson ordered the trial of the 50-year-old from St John's Hill, Woodbridge, to be stopped and directed the jury to return a not guilty verdict after the teenager said she was unable to continue giving evidence for a second day. Stewart had denied two charges of indecent assault and one of rape and was cleared of all three.

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The teenager's refusal to carry on followed a series of postponements which had left her anxious, confused and unable to sleep, she said.

"I was just drained, emotionally and physically. I wanted it all to stop and to go home," said the teenager, explaining why she had felt unable to continue giving evidence after the trial's start was postponed by more than four hours, her video evidence interrupted midway and then put-off to the following day.

"It was too much too handle," said the girl, telling how she became increasingly anxious and upset with each delay.

The trial was due to start at 10am but only commenced at 2.30pm. The judge then ordered the playing her video evidence to be stopped midway as he had to be in another court. She was then told her evidence would continue the next day.

"I think the thing that got me most was stopping the video," she said. "You're just left there with everything going around in your head."

The teenager spent the intervening night unable to sleep.

"I was just really fed up and anxious because I knew what I was going back to. I didn't understand why I had to go back for a second day. I thought I'd done something wrong.

"Now I can look back at it more clearly, I feel that I was let down by the courts. I think the system should do more to make it easier [for young witnesses]."

Court manager Ross Taylor said the teenager's was the first such complaint the court had received and pledged to raise her concerns with the Crown Prosecution Service, Witness Service and police at a meeting next week to see if lessons could be learned.

But he added: "We all know what the problems are. Had the preceding case not overrun, we wouldn't have had a problem."

He said he had written to the girl's carer on behalf of Judge John Devaux, resident judge at Ipswich Crown Court, stating: "The judge is sorry that he cannot enter into correspondence with anyone about an individual case. However, the judge will be speaking to his brother judges at this court to see whether any lessons can be learned from this case."

Mr Taylor said: "We admit things didn't go as we'd have wanted them to but there wasn't a lot we could do about it. We've never had a complaint of this nature before. We've had comments of witnesses waiting too long but nothing of this magnitude.

"It's very difficult coping with child witnesses and that's why we go out of our way to treat them differently. It's a specialised part of what we do.

"We deal with quite a few child witnesses and have to deal with each on their own merit."

Mr Taylor said the judges were "still talking among themselves" about the issue to see if any lessons could be learned and he would raise the case with the other relevant agencies.

"Conversations are not concluded nor agreement reached," he said.