Court sketch by Isobel Williams,

Court sketch by Isobel Williams,

It’s now been nearly 15 years since Jack Straw, then Home Secretary, informed the British public that he would ‘bring victims in from the cold and put their interests at the heart of the system’. As the nights grow longer, and the first signs of winter appear, it might be time to consider whether these promises have been fulfilled.

The last two decades have seen a number of major developments in how victims and witnesses are supported through the criminal justice system – the creation of the Witness Service at the Crown Court in 1994, the provision of ‘special measures’ for vulnerable and intimidated witnesses in 1999 and the introduction of Victim Personal Statements in 2001.

However, a recent survey by the Crown Prosecution Service provides some illuminating evidence of a criminal justice system that appears to be trying to support victims and witnesses but, in many ways, is still failing them more often than not. The survey found that half of all victims and over a third of witnesses felt they did not receive enough support before giving evidence in court. Over a third of victims were not offered the chance to make a Victim Personal Statement. And where victims were able to make a statement, over half did not even know whether their statement was used in their case.

Even where the system does get it right for victims and witnesses, there is a lack of consistency in providing services. For instance, there is an initiative to provide victims and witnesses with information or a DVD that explains court processes and what they can expect. The survey showed that, where this information is provided, the vast majority of victims and witnesses, over 95 per cent, find it helpful. However, less than a quarter of victims and witnesses ever actually receive this preparatory information.

The Criminal Justice Alliance’s latest briefing, Structured mayhem: Personal experiences of the Crown Court, provides some of the individual narratives that bring to life the dissatisfaction demonstrated in these statistics. The briefing is a digest of the significant research carried out by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research and published as Inside Crown Court.

Victims and witnesses interviewed for the research describe a judicial system that is invasive, frustrating, confusing and intimidating. Archaic ritual, language and dress-code alienate victims and witnesses and leave them feeling side-lined by the theatrics of the courtroom – a far cry from feeling at ‘the heart of the system’.

‘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.’
‘Julia’, witness

There is also a strong sense of ‘justice delayed is justice denied’ – the average time between someone being charged with an offence and the conclusion of a crown court trial has increased by a fifth in the last 18 months, from 304 to 360 days, and seems certain to increase further in light of the proposed court closures. Even when victims and witnesses finally do get to take part, they are often left feeling voiceless and irrelevant:

‘I did feel that I hadn’t done my part. I’d not said what I needed to say. I felt that I’d let everybody down because I don’t feel that I’d got my part of the story across.’
‘Amanda’, witness

The Conservative’s 2015 election manifesto promised to ‘strengthen victims’ rights further, with a new Victims’ Law that will enshrine key rights for victims’. The Queen’s Speech was similarly robust, promising that ‘Measures will be brought forward to increase the rights of victims of crime’. However, beyond the background briefing to the speech – which states that this new legislation will enshrine the key entitlements of the Victims’ Code and make it a right to make a Victim Personal Statement and read it out in court at sentencing and at the Parole Board – there is still no clarification as to what these measures will entail.

Enshrining the Victims’ Code as primary legislation is undoubtedly a welcome move, but there is evidence to suggest that much more needs to be done to ensure that victims and witnesses feel that they have been treated fairly and supported adequately by the criminal justice system.

The full CJA briefing, with a set of key findings and recommendations, is available here.

The Criminal Justice Alliance is a coalition of more than 90 organisations committed to improving the criminal justice system. Our members include campaigning charities, voluntary sector service providers, research institutions and staff associations involved in policy and practice across the criminal justice system.





Profile photo of Peter Keeling About Peter Keeling
Peter is member support officer at the Criminal Justice Alliance

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  • Mrs Clark November 4, 2015 7:54 am

    I hope this applies to the defendant and defendant witness,s too, we all have rights. VICTM is not a victim until corroborated evidence is provided. Word of one person does not provide credible evidence. Thus person is not a VICTM & sod nit be entitled to make further statement without corroborative evidence

  • William November 4, 2015 11:36 am

    What is interesting in the above word “victim” is that it needs to be classified as who is the “victim”, for is the victim the person accused or the person accusing? This is asked because I can clearly prove, by using corroborated evidence based upon six years of receiving false accusations from Public Servants that are employed by 12 different Justice controlling organisations, that the unwilling victim is the person being accused.
    I can now further prove, with corroborating evidence, that the Rule of Law is abused and allows accusation that are based upon false opinions to punish and even convict innocent people just as it did in the Communist Party of the broken USSR – and sadly it seems again that this class war, against those who cannot financially defend themselves, is seriously aggravated by public servants who corrupt the system by using false opinions to punish others in order to seek advancement within their careers – and this procedure I can now prove is rampant.
    I further believe that the time of blah blah has ended and we need, by Judicial Revue, to change the Rule of Law so that Public Servants who work within our Justice system must establish – by corroborated evidence – their accusations against those who come under their care, but who will support this? A much needed support that will remove this class system in which the unchecked accusing “opinions” of Public servants are automatically believed and those victims that they accuse are automatically disbelieved, which currently allows promotion and false based punishment to expand within our Justice System. This is not right and can be proved by corroborated evidence that it is rampantly happening now. So yes, we need a Judicial Review and so make the Rule of Law protect ALL people.

  • Christopher Lennon November 4, 2015 5:36 pm

    Here is the late Lord Bingham’s definition of the Rule of Law, from his masterly and acclaimed book of the same title:

    “All persons and authorities within the state, whether public or private, should be bound by and entitled to the benefit of laws publicly made, taking effect (generally) in the future and publicly administered in the courts.”

    Which part of that should be changed, in your view, William?
    Who are the “public servants” and “justice controlling organisations” you refer to?

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