MPs speak out against unsuitable cross-examination of sex victims

Several Members of Parliament made impassioned speeches yesterday about the inappropriate lines of questioning by defence lawyers in sexual assault trials.

Actual cases were cited as they rose in support of changes to the Evidence Act that will require lawyers for the suspects to ask the court for permission, before they can cross-examine the victims on their sexual history which is not related to the charge.

Nominated MP Kok Heng Leun read out parts of a letter written by a victim of sexual abuse, who was concerned about "unrestrained cross-examination" after reading news reports about a man who had raped his biological mother.

The man's lawyers had argued the woman could have "shut the gates" by crossing her legs, and noted that she had gone about her usual routine instead of calling for help after the rape.

The letter writer said: "I don't know why lawyers, or indeed people, in this day and age continue to believe that sexual assault victims must behave in a certain way... or else they must be lying.

"I don't think I can defend how I behaved after my incident many years ago. I certainly couldn't do it while facing a senior counsel ."

PROTECTING VICTIMS

(The guidelines would) instruct defence counsel to refrain from making baseless submissions that disparage the character, integrity or morality of the victim, or premise their case theory on unsubstantiated myths and stereotypes.

MR PATRICK TAY (West Coast GRC), on his hopes for the guidelines of best practices for questioning children and victims of sexual offences, which the Law Society is working on.

Citing the same case and a few others, Mr Patrick Tay (West Coast GRC) said the victims had been unduly subjected to unnecessary lines of questioning and assertions while on the stand.

He noted that the Law Society is working on guidelines of best practices for questioning children and victims of sexual offences.

He said he hoped the guidelines would "instruct defence counsel to refrain from making baseless submissions that disparage the character, integrity or morality of the victim, or premise their case theory on unsubstantiated myths and stereotypes".

But Nominated MP Mahdev Mohan, referring to a Court of Appeal case in which the accused person was acquitted of rape, questioned if the restrictions would create a "chilling" effect on lawyers in putting forward their client's case.

Senior Minister of State for Law Indranee Rajah replied: "We are not saying that the topic cannot be raised. You must show a very good reason why you are asking those questions."

So long as counsel can show that there is a good reason for asking a question, permission will be given by the court in the interest of justice, she said.

Selina Lum

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 20, 2018, with the headline 'MPs speak out against unsuitable cross-examination of sex victims'. Print Edition | Subscribe