Evaluation of the Street Crime Initiative: supporting victims and witnesses of street crime: a joined-up approach
5. The Witness Service: users' experience
Going to court can be highly traumatic and may bring back very difficult memories. The Witness Service gives witnesses practical and emotional support throughout the process. Users' experience of the court process is therefore of fundamental importance in order to measure the success of the project and to learn lessons for future direction and development of services to witnesses.
Surveys were given to users of the Witness Service by volunteers over a two-week period during July 2003 in courts within the Victim Support Areas and London boroughs that received SCI funding. Sixty four completed surveys were returned. Missing data has not been included.
Of the completed surveys, 31 respondents had been the victim of the crime, 18 a prosecution witness, nine either a legal guardian or parent, three a relative or supporter and one a defence witness15. All trials were about robberies.
- 5.1 Contact with the Witness Service
- 5.2 Support and provision for witnesses
- 5.3 Satisfaction with the Witness Service
5.1 Contact with the Witness Service
Contact with the Witness Service before the trial starts allows time for a pre-trial visit and to discuss concerns with a volunteer. The Witness Service depends on receiving details from other agencies: in the main, the CPS or police. The SCI also encourages a seamless service between Victim Support and the Witness Service. Where a witness has been in contact with Victim Support it is important that they are, where relevant, made aware of the service available to them in court. Thirty nine per cent of witnesses had contact with the Witness Service before the trial and 56% had no contact before the day.
The Witness Service made the first contact with 54% of witnesses before the trial. Victim Support referred 18% of witnesses. 18% contacted the Witness Service personally and 10% reported first contact by other means, including someone 'phoning on their behalf.
It is likely that the negative experience of this user before the trial is the result of not being referred to the service in due time, pressures on volunteer time, or through no free courtrooms being available to organise court familiarisation.
On the day of the trial
In the majority of cases (52%) the Witness Service met the witness in person on the day of the trial. Twenty nine per cent of witnesses made contact by going to the Witness Service or court reception desk. Seventeen per cent were either directed or accompanied by court staff and 2% (one person) had to follow signs within the court building.
Making contact with the Witness Service was perceived as 'easy' by 95% of witnesses (76% 'very easy', 19% 'fairly easy'). Two witnesses found the process 'fairly difficult'.
5.2 Support and provision for witnesses
It is important for witnesses to have a quiet place to wait before and during the trial. Separating prosecution and defence witnesses, and defendants (who are not in custody) from prosecution witnesses, is also important for the well being of witnesses. Much of this is not under the direct control of the Witness Service, though where possible they will work in partnership with the court to bring about change.
The majority of witnesses (86%) had a separate room to wait in before the trial started. Eleven per cent did not16. Of the witnesses who did not have this facility made available to them, one felt it would have helped them. The provision of a separate waiting area was considered 'important' by 87% of witnesses (46% 'very important', 41% 'fairly important').
Once the trial started, 64% of witnesses had a separate room to wait in. Twenty two per cent did not17. Of the witnesses who did not have this facility made available to them, six felt that it would have helped. The majority of witnesses (72%) felt the use of a separate room during the trial was 'important' (41% 'very important', 30% 'fairly important'). Only two witnesses felt that this was not a very important facility.
Provision of information and support
The Witness Service does not comment on a trial and the proceedings or persuade a witness to give evidence. Its role is to listen to the concerns and anxieties a witness may have, and to provide them with the necessary information and support. It is this that helps to put them in the right frame of mind to make their own decisions and provide their best evidence.
Ninety two per cent of witnesses were given information about court procedures. A small proportion (5%, three people) reported not receiving any information. Two witnesses thought that this would have helped them. Of those who did receive information, the majority (92%) found it 'useful' (72% 'very useful', 20% 'fairly useful'). No witnesses found the information 'not useful'.
A volunteer accompanied the majority (82%) of witnesses into the courtroom. Twelve per cent (eight people) of witnesses were not accompanied, and none of them thought it would have helped. Eighty four per cent found being accompanied into the courtroom 'useful' (64% 'very useful', 20% 'fairly useful'). The combination of volunteer availability and the number of trials on a particular day will affect the Witness Service's ability to provide someone to accompany a witness throughout the time they give evidence.
The majority of witnesses (73%) were able to talk to someone in confidence about their concerns. The majority (77%) thought this was 'useful' (54% 'very useful', 23% 'fairly useful'). Only one respondent did not find the experience useful. A smaller number of respondents (17%, 11 people) did not speak to a volunteer in confidence about their concerns. Of these, three felt it would have helped.
Other forms of support provided were:
- a visit to the courtroom before being called as a witness (if they did not receive a pre-trial visit before the day of the trial)
- direction to other people who can answer specific questions about the case
- information about claiming expenses
- contact with police in cases of harassment
- the chance to talk over the experience after the trial
- information given about sentencing at a later stage
- referral to Victim Support or other relevant agency once the trial has ended if further support is needed.
5.3 Satisfaction with the Witness Service
The majority of service users (95%) were 'satisfied' with the overall service they received from the Witness Service (63% 'very satisfied', 32% 'fairly satisfied'). Nobody was 'dissatisfied' with the service. Excluding 'don't know' responses, the level of satisfaction was 96%.
The large majority of users found the relationship they had with the volunteer 'very positive', with 97% stating that they were 'supportive' of their needs (67% 'very supportive', 30% 'fairly supportive'). This is 98% when 'don't knows' are excluded. No users felt that the volunteer was 'unsupportive'.
Ninety three per cent of users said they would use the service again. Seven per cent did not know. Ninety seven per cent thought that they would recommend the service to someone else.
Users were asked, based solely on their experience with the Witness Service, whether, if they were a victim or witness of a crime in the future, they would be more likely to attend court again. Fifty seven per cent thought they would be 'more likely' to attend court again (31% 'much more likely', 26% 'slightly more likely'). Thirty one per cent felt about the same and 10% were 'less likely' (3% 'slightly less likely', 7% 'much less likely').
With overall satisfaction with the Witness Service high, it is probable that some witnesses may have had difficulty in focusing just on the experience of the Witness Service when answering this question. The outcome of the trial is also likely to have skewed the response to this question if, for example, the witness felt angry or disappointed about the outcome of the trial. One respondent was particularly distressed about not having a choice about whether screens were used to shield their identity from the defendant. This made their whole experience of the court process more negative, although it is not in the power of the Witness Service to implement this measure.
What else could the Witness Service have done?
A relatively small proportion of witnesses (25%, 15 people) felt that more could have been done for them. This included:
- more assistance and support prior to the trial
- more support during the trial itself
15. In two surveys the status of the respondent is unknown.
16. One respondent did not know.
17. Fourteen per cent (8 people) did not know.