Support after Shipman: the role of Victim Support and the Witness Service - Preston Crown Court Witness Service and work arising from the Shipman case

Preston Crown Court Witness Service, like Victim Support Tameside, found themselves in a situation they had never experienced before. The homicides had occurred outside their normal catchment area and they had not previously worked specifically with the Tameside Scheme. Early contact with the Tameside Scheme co-ordinator paved the way for a visit to the Senior Police Investigation Officer and team, giving rise to a fuller understanding of the resources that the Witness Service were likely to need. It also became clear that it would be helpful for families if the Witness Service co-ordinator became the known face when they arrived at court and were passed on to the volunteer who would support them throughout the trial.

Initial issues

Due to the expected higher volume of work caused by the Shipman trial, the deputy co-ordinator of Preston Crown Court Witness Service took over the responsibility for running all other Witness Service work for the duration of the familiarisation visits and the trial itself. This decision freed up the co-ordinator to plan the logistics of helping approximately three hundred witnesses.

As the Witness Service normally ran on 32 volunteers, it was obvious that either more volunteers would have to be recruited and trained, or a different possibility considered. Normally, the agreed national policy is that the Witness Service assigns one volunteer to one witness in court. This would have created an impossible situation. Therefore the co-ordinator took the problem to the National Office, and when they were unable to advise, directly to the prosecution and defence lawyers. It was agreed and approved by the trial judge that the Witness Service volunteers could be used more than once throughout the trial to support witnesses in court. Once the witness they were supporting had completed evidence, the volunteer could then support another witness on their next duty day. This was agreed as a protocol, which meant that the Witness Service actions could not be used as grounds for any legal appeal. Although this agreement helped, there was still a shortage of volunteers, and Lancaster Crown Court Witness Service was approached and provided the shortfall. Manchester Crown Court Witness Service also helped by providing a "crash course" for volunteers who travelled on the mini-bus with the families so that they worked within the rules of evidence.

Physical issues

The Shipman trial took place in the old Sessions House, which is a building apart from the usual Crown Court centre but nearby. The co-ordinator had to quickly familiarise herself with the building, then negotiate for rooms so that there would be enough space for families to be cared for away from the public gaze, but separated from each other so that those having given evidence would not mix with those waiting to give evidence. A third room and telephone were required for emergency situations. Arrangements were also made so that families could eat and go to the toilets away from the public.

Familiarisation with court buildings and procedures

Familiarisation visits were arranged separately for the families, surgery staff and nurses (who were also witnesses), in groups of 10-12 people. As these were only possible during the holiday period in August, there were some problems as the Sessions House buildings were at that time being altered. However, thanks to the existing good relations, the logistical problems of the visits and information sessions were managed well.

Families were shown the court and given a plan showing who would sit where and their role in the proceedings. The surrounding facilities were also shown so that families would feel more comfortable by being familiar with the court layout. During these visits staff took the opportunity to emphasise that no-one should discuss their evidence with anyone else.

Seating in court

Arrangements were made with the court manager and approved by the trial judge, that 30 seats would be reserved in court for the families of the 15 people named in the murder charges. Fortunately, as the trial was run in the old and larger Sessions House, these family members were accommodated through ongoing negotiations. Arrangements were also made by the court manager for a video link into another courtroom. Family members who were not among the 15 concerned in the trial were equally distressed and needed assistance. This gave rise to more pressure on both co-ordinators.

The needs of the family of the accused were met by the defence lawyers.


Finances became a problem, as it was not clear who should pay the expenses of the volunteers from Lancaster. At this stage a phone call to the National Office did not initially help clarify things, although at the end of the trial in January 2000, a grant of £2000 was made to Preston Crown Court Witness Service by the National Association for sundries, including volunteers' travel expenses.

More money was obtained from a special fund available through the National Office to help families awaiting the jury deliberations, which took six days. This was used for their travel expenses.

Separate entrance/exit point

This was arranged through the deputy court manager because of the high media interest. A place where media interviews could take place was also arranged by the manager, and as already noted, he provided assistance to families with regard to what they wanted to say to the media.

Witness Service work during the court hearing

In this case there were seven days' legal argument and toxicology evidence, during which the Witness Service co-ordinator realised the enormity of the case.

"This was not a nice doctor who, for whatever misguided reasons, had simply helped his patients to end their days more comfortably..."

As in other trials, and following the normal Victim Support Code of practice, the work of the Witness Service consisted of supporting families throughout the trial by being with them, answering procedural questions, and providing a safe, separate environment where they could comfortably sit. In this case, the service was also able to keep families informed of the general progress of the case, help them look ahead and be aware that some specifics in the trial would come up again and again. During long days they helped them find some physical relief through exercises that can be done while sitting.

It was also necessary to ensure that the general public did not take the family seats, although the court ushers were extremely helpful to families throughout the trial.

Updating and day review

The Witness Service co-ordinator continually updated the Tameside Scheme co-ordinator and regularly reviewed the day's proceedings and any issues arising with the court volunteers. An example of the importance of this was when a death was described and the volunteer realised the awful nature of the case for the first time.

"I felt a weight descend on me as I realised we had moved from seeing Dr Shipman as a nice doctor into a multiple murderer."

Good day reviews meant that volunteers went home at the end of the day with less of a burden.

The Witness Service co-ordinator also kept families informed about Shipman's own evidence, as those families not able to be present wanted and needed to know what had been said.

At the end of each day there was a telephone call to the Tameside Scheme co-ordinator during which any significant facts were shared, along with information about the condition of the families. As there wasn't a Witness Service office or a Scheme secretary in the Sessions House, the mobile phone contact became crucial.

During this period, all families, volunteers and the co-ordinator ran the gauntlet of the press, photographers and television companies. Their only respite was within the witness suite where their privacy was respected.

Supervision and support

There was a system of support for the co-ordinator, but this was not on a regular face-to-face basis. Supervision was given by the co-ordinator to the volunteers through the review sessions at the end of each day. During this time, any distressing aspects could be discussed. If longer consideration was felt appropriate, notes were made for future supervision sessions. Any legal issues or physical problems could also be raised each day.

The role of the management committee

The management committee played an important role in supporting the co-ordinator through the regular management meetings, and through contact with the chair of the committee. The co-ordinator gave updates on the trial progress and any difficulties arising, and these were dealt with swiftly. Matters of finance were a problem that was also discussed.

Jury deliberation and verdict

During the six days during which the jury were deliberating, support was given constantly to all the families where criminal charges had been brought. Some families who were not involved in these cases, but had lost a loved one, were also supported. The co-ordinator found this to be a particularly stressful time for all concerned, and commented that the four volunteers who helped over those days were especially supportive.

"They did everything in their power to keep up the spirits of the families (and mine). We talked about any and every subject you could imagine. We laughed and cried together and became a community."

At the end of the sixth day, the jury delivered their verdicts and in passing sentence read out the names of each of the deceased. Later a comment was made by one family that:

"The naming made them into real people again."

The judge addressed the families and their supporters, commending them for their courage and dignity. Afterwards they went to the witness rooms before leaving for home.

The media and the Witness Service

Throughout the trial the co-ordinator and volunteers were in the limelight alongside families. Volunteers were reminded of the normal Code of practice requirements never to make any comments about a trial, and this was always followed. Likewise, the Witness Service co-ordinator did not make any comment to the media. However, during the six day wait, arrangements were put in place so that families could deal with the media when the trial was over. These arrangements were first co-ordinated by the Greater Manchester Police and their press office, then later by the press officer from the Lord Chancellor's Department. Nevertheless, the co-ordinator was frequently asked to be on hand to support family, mainly by simply being there.

The abrupt end of any trial can be difficult for people to handle. In this case, families were either swallowed up by the media, or went home together. Volunteers had been thanked and left too, leaving the co-ordinator alone. She was left wondering how she would have handled matters had a "not guilty" verdict been brought in. A sudden call on her mobile brought a request from a family member to look for a ring that had been lost in court. Failure to find it resulted in the co-ordinator experiencing a surprising depth of distress. Perhaps at this stage support for the co-ordinator should have been in place, but it was not.

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