Alison Saunders – the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) – is boosting the support offered to victims and witnesses at Crown Court proceedings by ensuring that the vital service offered by dedicated Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) paralegal staff is provided exactly where it’s needed – at court. Three pilot areas will now begin to test proposed new guidance, finalised after public consultation, on speaking to victims and witnesses at court. These pilots are due to start from October.
The announcement comes as the CPS publishes its first-ever survey of more than 7,000 crime victims and witnesses. Two thirds of victims and three quarters of witnesses reported that they were satisfied or very satisfied with the service they have received from the CPS. Contact with CPS Victim Liaison Units, introduced by the DPP on her first day in post, was felt to be helpful by 82% of victims. The full survey is available to view on the CPS website.
Alison Saunders explained: “I’m really pleased that, since I introduced dedicated teams to liaise with crime victims, they have overwhelmingly found these helpful. The message from both victims and witnesses remains loud and clear, though. While we do get it right in the majority of cases, they want more support throughout the life of a prosecution and most notably ahead of what can be the difficult task of giving evidence at a live criminal trial. The CPS can and will do more to support the victims and witnesses of crime. They’re re essential to the success of our prosecutions.”
CPS paralegal staff at Crown Court centres will cover a maximum of two court rooms each, ensuring they’re in the right place at the right time to conduct their public facing roles, among them answering routine questions about daily life at court, thanking witnesses who have given evidence, ensuring that victims and witnesses know how they can follow the rest of the case if they wish to and administering responsibility for note-taking when prosecutors meet with victims and witnesses to explain the general nature of the defence’s case.
Extending the role of Victim Liaison Units (VLU) will also be considered to ensure the CPS is best serving victims and witnesses. The CPS survey reports that, where participants had contact with a CPS VLU, this was felt to be helpful by the majority of victims (82% of them, in fact).
The DPP continued: “Paralegals are vital to the work of the CPS. By having more CPS paralegals at Crown Courts, we can harness their expertise to help deliver significantly enhanced support for victims and witnesses. Our Victim Liaison Units have also proven to be very helpful and reassuring, and I now want to consider whether this role can be extended as well.”
Issues around cross-examinations
The CPS survey also looked closely at the issue of cross-examination and found that:
*91% of victims and 92% of witnesses who were surveyed said they gave evidence and were cross-examined
*49% of victims and 36% of witnesses said that they were not given enough support before giving evidence (this will be addressed through the pilots)
*Of those deemed to have been involved in a case concerning a sensitive offence, only 45% of victims and 48% of witnesses felt that they were given enough support (this issue will also be addressed through the pilots)
Over 170 people and organisations responded to the public consultation on the DPP’s draft guidance for Speaking to Witnesses at Court, which was issued in January this year. Most supported the proposals, although there was some concern that there was not enough resource to manage the extra work and that prosecutors may be accused of coaching witnesses. The deployment of paralegal staff to the Crown Courts will help to address these two issues where the most sensitive cases are heard. Pilots will help the CPS to refine how it manages this important service.
The DPP added: “Giving evidence is one of the most important public duties that we can be asked to perform and so it’s absolutely right that we assist victims and witnesses to give the best evidence possible, as free as possible from stress or shock, while at the same time protecting the fundamental rights of defendants to a fair trial.”
Saunders continued: “The survey and consultation process have been invaluable and there is clearly support for these plans from both those who know the criminal justice system well and those who do not. This change will bring about a real improvement to the way we do things currently, and that’s why I’m offering training on speaking to victims and witnesses to all CPS advocates and staff at court, and those who prosecute for us, and why I want to first pilot these plans to ensure that, working with our partners in the courts, the police and the Witness Service, we absolutely get it right.”
Pilots will start from October 2015 at Magistrates’ and Crown Courts in Liverpool, Sheffield and one other area to be confirmed, with a national roll-out planned from January next year. A thorough training programme, comprising of both online and face-to-face learning, will be provided to all prosecutors and court-based staff as well as those external advocates who prosecute cases for the CPS.
Better access to CPS prosecutors and paralegals
The Victims’ Commissioner, Baroness Newlove, said: “I welcome this announcement by the DPP. I particularly welcome victims having better access to CPS prosecutors and paralegals who will be at court to support victims and witnesses throughout their journey. Hopefully, this will aid their rehabilitation. The court room experience for victims and witnesses is never easy and so it is a ‘fundamental right’ for them to be treated with dignity and respect. Victims and witnesses must be our first thought and not an afterthought.”
Mark Castle, CEO of the independent charity Victim Support, stated: “We know from supporting thousands of victims and witnesses through the court process that it can be daunting and distressing. The main worry for many is the process of giving evidence and being cross-examined. It’s right that victims and witnesses should be given more information about their case, and in particular the nature of the defence, so that they can be better prepared to give their best evidence. We welcome the fact that more support and information will be available to help people through this difficult time.”
The Attorney General, Jeremy Wright QC MP, outlined: “Any work designed to improve our service to victims and witnesses should be welcomed. They play a vital role in ensuring justice is done and they must be given the support they deserve. Helping them to understand what’s happening at court and why is an important part of that help. I look forward to seeing the outcomes of the pilots and hope the plans will be rolled out nationally if they’re a success.”