Harris, 86, has pleaded not guilty to seven counts of indecent assault and one of sexual touching, against seven females dating from 1971 to 2004. Photo: Getty Images. London:Rolf Harris will be a ‘virtual defendant’ at his sex assault trial next year, in what a judge said may be a British legal first.
In a pre-trial hearing on Thursday at Southwark Crown court, judge Alistair McCreath ruled that given the age and health of Harris, who is 86, exceptional circumstances justified his attendance by video link.
Harris told the judge he would “very much appreciate” being allowed to stay where he is – at Stafford prison, north of Birmingham – for the trial’s duration.
Harris appeared at the pre-trial hearing over video link, at a desk in a small room in Stafford. He was dressed in a grey suit and colourful tie, and followed the legal argument closely, occasionally fidgeting and resting his head on his chin.
Harris’ barrister Stephen Vullo QC said his client was “well settled where heis”.
If he was to attend trial in person he would likely be transferred to Wandsworth prison in south London.
This “causes him some trepidation”, Mr Vullo said.
Once he was part of a general prison population there was the risk of infection and other problems that could interfere with the trial.
“Much younger and fitter defendants (at Wandsworth) often end up missing breakfast, coming late, they don’t have a shower,” Mr Vullo said.
Neither Mr Vullo nor Justice McCreath had heard of a defendant attending their own trial by video link, but they agreed the judge had the power to allow it, given Harris had requested it, and given his exceptional circumstances.
“I have no personal or anecdotal experience of a trial being done this way,” Justice McCreath said.
“It seems such a sensible idea it’s surprising it hasn’t (happened)…. He has a right to make his own choice whether he is present or not. Why can’t he attend the trial virtually rather than in person? The answer seems to be ‘no reason’.
“This is an elderly man, not in the best of health, who will be much more effectively able to participate in the trial by following it or giving evidence (remotely) than if he were here.”
However he warned Harris that he was doing this at his own risk – “if the technology breaks down then on his own head be it, we will have to make progress with the trial, maybe in his temporary absence”.
Harris has pleaded not guilty to seven counts of indecent assault and one of sexual touching, against seven females dating from 1971 to 2004, aged 12 to 27.
The trial is due to begin on January 9.
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