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Witness Support Groups - Talk in Confidence

By: Louise Smith, barrister - Updated: 21 Sep 2012 | comments*Discuss
Witness Criminal Justice Giving Evidence

If no one was prepared to come forward as a witness there would be no true criminal justice system. Crimes would go unreported and uncorroborated; with no one giving evidence, prosecutions would fail.

Nobody chooses to be a witness but if someone finds themselves in that role they should know that they are not alone. The vital role they play in the administration of justice is recognised by the government, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). A comprehensive system is in place to provide witnesses with support and guidance throughout the process, from their initial involvement to the resolution of the case. The security and confidence of witnesses is, rightly, considered to be of paramount importance.

Victim Support

Victim Support is a national charity who helps those who have become involved in crime. Despite their name they do not only help those who are the victims of crime but also those who become involved in the criminal justice system as witnesses. The help they offer is free and confidential, and they will continue to offer support after the conclusion of the trial if it is still needed. Even those who have witnessed a crime but choose not to report it will be given support.

Victim Support has a national helpline in addition to a comprehensive network of local branches who can be contacted directly. The Victim Support website gives a general overview of the services they can provide to both witnesses and victims of crime.

Witness Service

Victim Support runs the Witness Service which operates in every criminal court in England and Wales. The Witness Service provides support to anyone who has to go to court either as a witness or as the victim of a crime. It is, of course, likely that the victim will also be a witness. The Witness Service also offers support to the family and friends of victims who attend court with them.

The support offered by the Witness Service ranges from providing advice about the trial process and a chance to see the court before the day of the trial, to offering a quiet and safe place to sit while waiting to give evidence. Witnesses coming to court could easily feel intimidated if they found themselves sitting next to a friend of the accused – or even the alleged criminal themselves. The Witness Service will work to ensure that this kind of encounter is avoided. If a witness feels they still need help, or just someone to talk to about their experience, after the trial has ended the Witness Service will still be there.

The Victim Support website provides information about the location, telephone number and email address of local Witness Service centres. Although the Witness Service has the full backing of the police and the criminal justice system, it operates independently of them. Therefore witnesses can talk to Witness Service staff in the full confidence that what they say need go no further.

Witness Liaison Officers

Every criminal court has a Witness Liaison Officer whose responsibility it is to ensure that witnesses are kept informed about the process of the case. They are intended to be a single point of contact liaising with everyone involved in the case – witnesses, police, lawyers, and court staff. In some areas the police may allocate a witness with a Witness Liaison Officer as soon as they first give their statement so that the witness has someone they can talk to from the outset of the case.

Witness Care Units

In recent years there has been a concerted effort to develop an integrated network of specialised Witness Care Units in England and Wales. This has been undertaken as a joint CPS, police and government initiative. Because of the collaboration between the different agencies the Witness Care Units are intended to provide comprehensive care and support to witnesses and victims of crime. This support should be continuous throughout the trial process - from the point at which the defendant is first charged with an offence to the conclusion of the trial.

It is the stated policy of the Witness Care Units that witnesses’ needs are continuously assessed by the police and the CPS. The Units’ work includes practical considerations, such as a witness’s need for childcare while they are at court, as well as advice and support in dealing with and understanding the legal process.

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