Putting victims and witnesses at the heart of the justice system
Technology holds the key to a more personalised process
“It’s just very frightening, very daunting when you walk in and you see all the chairs and the benches and everything set out, and then you see all these people with their wigs on and the gowns.”
These opening lines from an ICPR research report provide a snapshot of how witnesses and victims often feel when summonsed to give evidence in court. Some may have travelled alone by public transport to an unfamiliar place, worrying they might bump into someone involved in the case. On their arrival, they will undergo the court’s security procedures, knowing that they are likely to be cross-examined in front of the defendant and possibly their associates.
It’s therefore not really surprising that an HM Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate (HMCPSI) report published last year found that during 2014-15, more than 11,000 criminal trials in England and Wales were abandoned because witnesses either refused to give evidence or failed to appear at court. Known as ‘cracked’ cases, the same document reported that 2.1% of crown court trials and 6.8% of magistrates’ court trials in 2014-15 were ‘cracked’ compared with 1.8% and 6.3% the year before.
The report also found that summonsing domestic violence case witnesses to court could make them less willing to cooperate, but prosecutors often issued formal summonses witnesses rather than allowing them to give evidence without having to attend court. Yet the criminal justice system depends on these individuals to give evidence in order for justice to be served, so it’s in everyone’s interests to make their experiences as stress free as possible.
Across the justice system, there is a genuine desire to support victims and witnesses. The College of Policing says all witnesses should treated with dignity and respect, and the Crown Prosecution Service’s Principles of Victim and Witness Care include detailed information on Special Measures cases, where particularly vulnerable individuals – domestic violence victims or children for example – can give evidence from behind a screen, through live video link or via recorded interview, minimising the possibility of direct contact with the defendant.
However, the Ministry of Justice Guidance says that Special Measures are “very much a matter for the court” and should be confined to vulnerable and intimidated individuals where they are “likely to improve the quality of the witness’s evidence”. And many of the participants who took part in the research quoted at the start said they hadn’t even been told about Special Measures or other available support.
The road to virtual justice
Access to technology can be a barrier to the routine use of Special Measures; most counties across England and Wales have only a limited number of video enabled courtrooms, which can result in delays to some cases, particularly those involving special measures. But there are signs of change. Take Kent for example, where all 14 crown courts are 100% video enabled, together with all 21 magistrate courtrooms.
Meanwhile, The Code of Practice for Victims of Crime allows Special Measures applications for witnesses to give evidence by video from a neutral location – a local police station, village hall or even at home – and some experts believe that Special Measures should be the default for many more witnesses and victims, including those with limited mobility and/or without their own transport. Allowing more witnesses to give evidence remotely using technology like Cisco WebEx or Cisco Jabber, could mitigate the distress associated with appearing in court, and even potentially reduce the likelihood of a case being ‘cracked’ because they were too scared to give evidence.
In fact, Cisco WebEx is already helping virtual justice become a reality, and by putting victims and witnesses at the heart of the justice system, perhaps justice is more likely to be served, resulting in peace of mind for everyone.
For more information about how Cisco technology is supporting police forces, courts and prisons around the UK, contact the Cisco justice team.