New rights for victims of crime in Europe - Specialist services for witnesses in court

Victim Support in England and Wales has successfully pioneered, researched and developed services for witnesses in all its criminal courts, which have been well received, supported and encouraged by all the professions working in the courts. The Witness Service was piloted in the Crown Court centres (higher courts) in response to research highlighting the needs of witnesses attending court. It operates to national standards and provides information and support for witnesses. Services include the opportunity to visit a courtroom before giving evidence, the provision of information on court procedures, a quiet place to wait, someone to talk to in confidence, and a chance to talk over the case when it has ended and to get more help or information. The service is available to all witnesses, including defence witnesses.

A man whose daughter was a key witness in a case of rape and indecent assault, explains the contribution made by the Witness Service:

"The trial was delayed for some time which wasn't helpful, but during that time the Witness Service kept in touch with us, telling us what was going on. When the date for the trial was finally agreed, the Witness Service arranged for us to be able to park at court, which was essential since my daughter uses a wheelchair. Counsel agreed that the Witness Service volunteer would be able to sit with her while she gave evidence. This was particularly important to me since both my wife and I were witnesses in the case and could not go into the court while our daughter gave her evidence. This made a tremendous difference to our peace of mind. It meant that we could think about what we had to say, rather than worrying so much about her that we couldn't concentrate. The Witness Service also ensured that screens were in place to prevent my daughter having to see the defendant, and that she was helped into and out of the court. The eventual verdict was not guilty, and again the help we had from the Witness Service in explaining this to my daughter and answering all her questions has been vital. I am sure that Victim Support's work in the Witness Service helped to hold us together through the case. We simply could not have coped without the help and advice that we received."

Over 90% of all criminal cases are tried in the 430-plus magistrates' courts (lower criminal courts) operating throughout England and Wales. Magistrates' courts regularly consider assaults, threats, harassment - including racially motivated crime and domestic violence, neglect of children, and cases involving a death on the roads. Because of the local nature of magistrates' courts, witnesses may be known to defendants and to their friends or relatives, giving rise to fears of intimidation. In addition, most witnesses summoned to magistrates' courts will never have been to court before, and many find the experience distressing. Witnesses can experience acute anxiety, fear of the court process and a fear of confronting the defendant. In the light of this, Victim Support believed it was essential that the Witness Service be extended to all criminal courts throughout England and Wales. Following a protracted campaign, Victim Support in England and Wales finally secured Home Office funding to extend the Witness Service to all magistrates' courts in 1999. In April 2000, the Witness Service was operational in just over 100 magistrates' courts, by the end of the financial year the service had been set up in 207 courts - covering almost half the country. During that year over 32,800 people were supported. From April 2002 services were fully operational in all courts. Through the extension of the Witness Service, Victim Support can now deliver an efficient, responsive network of quality services working to national standards throughout all the criminal courts in England and Wales.

"A woman had been warned to attend the magistrates' court to give evidence against her estranged partner. The police had already informed the Witness Service of her anxieties about attending court and confronting her partner. The Witness Service was able to contact her and arrange a pre-trial visit. Despite these efforts she failed to attend court at the scheduled time and the case was adjourned. However, the woman phoned the Witness Service on her mobile phone saying she was in the car park but was too frightened to enter the court. Our volunteer went straight outside, listened to the woman's fears and gave her time to calm down. She agreed to attend court (later that day) where she was able to give evidence of the assault against her. This case is similar to many we have known from our Crown Court Witness Services over the years; we believe that our presence in the magistrates' courts may prevent many cases from collapsing at this vital stage, by contributing to the protection and support of those who have courageously come forward."

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