Victims of crime and witnesses were frequently left ‘frustrated’ with no effective voice in ‘chaotic’ court proceedings, according to a new report by a coalition of 90 criminal justice organisations published today. The report (Structured Mayhem: Personal experiences of the Crown Court) by the Criminal Justice Alliance collates the experiences of victims, witnesses and defendants and features research by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research at Birkbeck, University of London.
‘While hearings, and particularly trials, are elaborate and formal, they are also often chaotic. Bringing a large cast of characters together over the requisite period of time – along with necessary documentation and evidence in the form of video or audio recordings and physical artefacts – is a challenging task that can, and often does, go wrong.’
‘Frequently our courts system still appears to operate with all the efficiency of the late 19th century in the first half of the 21st. Justice delayed, too often without explanation and amid huge confusion, can be every bit as bad as justice denied for victims and witnesses,’ said CJA director Ben Summerskill.
The report features a series of recommendations for the government and judiciary, including:
- The criminal dock, which ‘isolates defendants and further alienates them from proceedings’, should only be used on ‘a discretionary basis where deemed appropriate by the judge for reasons of safety’. Instead, defendants should sit next to their lawyer.
Lawyers needed to translate ‘legalese’ as they can make trials ‘almost incomprehensible’ to victims, witnesses and defendants. The Judicial College and Crown Prosecution should provide better training in ‘plain English’ for judges and prosecutors.
Witnesses’ employers should be able to request information about the length of a case or the time an individual will be missing from work.
Last year only half of Crown Court trials went ahead as planned even when victims and witnesses had been required to attend. Dr Jessica Jacobson, lead author of the report, said:
‘The court experience is alienating for victims, witnesses and defendants alike. They share a marginalised, outsider status within a process that is highly formal and elaborate, while also chaotic.’
More information about the Criminal Justice Alliance can be found here.
Alex Cisneros is a barrister practising out of No5 Chambers. He specialises in public law