Published on behalf of Legal Futures Associate The Chartered Institute of Legal Executives
The Citizens Advice Witness Service provides a vital facility offering free and independent support for witnesses in every criminal court across England and Wales.
Giving evidence as a witness can be daunting, and the court process can be complicated and difficult to understand. Yet with the right support, a witness should be able to give evidence to the best of their ability which, in turn, supports the effective delivery of justice.
The Citizens Advice Witness Service is funded by the Ministry of Justice and offers free, independent and impartial support for defence and prosecution witnesses in around 270 criminal courts in England and Wales.1 The Witness Service provides practical information as well as emotional support to over 180,000 witnesses every year to help witnesses feel more confident about giving evidence.
The Witness Service wants witnesses to leave court feeling respected and fairly treated, having given their best evidence. A positive experience of giving evidence helps people have confidence in the criminal justice system, encouraging them to engage and cooperate with it. Eighty-two per cent of the witnesses supported by the Witness Service would be prepared to give evidence again: 60% because of its support.
Supporting defence witnesses
Although the Witness Service offers support to both defence and prosecution witnesses, defence witnesses made up 2% of the witnesses it supported in 2015/16, and only a small number of these were referred in advance. The majority of the witnesses it supports are giving evidence for the prosecution; this is mainly because the Witness Service knows when to expect prosecution witnesses and can work with them in advance. At present, the Witness Service does not know when to expect most defence witnesses as only a small number were referred in advance.
The Witness service wanted to understand why so few of the defence community were making use of the free service available, so it worked with an organisation called Supporting Justice to do some research and find out.
Supporting Justice spoke to defence lawyers to learn what might be preventing them from referring witnesses for support. The researchers found that many defence lawyers did not know what the service offers or the benefits of referring witnesses. In some cases they thought, wrongly, that it was a prosecution-only service.
By speaking with defence witnesses, Supporting Justice sought to understand their needs better too. The researchers found that defence witnesses did need – and want – more information and support.
One witness explained that giving evidence at court ‘wasn’t a pleasant feeling at all – it was stressful and we didn’t know where to go or who to ask for. We’ve been hanging around for hours with no information.’ Another witness said: ‘It’s been really scary, especially when you’ve never been in or seen a courtroom before.’
Supporting Justice also found that defence witnesses were not aware of what was available from the Witness Service. One witness said: ‘It’s a shame we were not aware of [the service] before we came here.’ Another explained that if they had known how the Witness Service could support them: ‘I definitely would have used the service – I think it would have been really helpful.’
Support can benefit defence lawyers and witnesses
There are real benefits to referring witnesses to the Witness Service. When witnesses feel informed and supported, they are more likely to attend court.
Witness Service staff and volunteers go far beyond offering witnesses and their families a cup of tea and a friendly face. They are highly trained and accredited to support both defence and prosecution witnesses, and they show incredible dedication to ensure that the service is independent of the police, prosecution agencies and the courts.
A key part of their work is offering pre-trial visits for witnesses, so that they are familiar with the court environment and court processes before they give their evidence. By attending a pre-trial visit, witnesses will know what to expect when they arrive at court. The Witness Service contacts witnesses in advance of the trial to offer pre-trial visits and discuss their support needs.
A more in-depth ‘outreach’ service is also available for vulnerable and intimidated witnesses before, during and after trial. Pre-trial support and preparation are provided to witnesses away from court, perhaps in their home, or in a school or community centre. All Witness Service support is tailored to meet the individual needs of witnesses, including those who are vulnerable and intimidated.
Witness Service staff can also keep defence witnesses informed of proceedings on the day of trial to allow defence lawyers to spend more time with their clients. When conducting their research, Supporting Justice explained this to defence lawyers, who could clearly see the benefits. One defence solicitor said: ‘I think witnesses would be calmer, more informed and it would take the pressure off me.’ The defence community recognised the amount of work that had to be achieved on the day of trial – supporting witnesses was just one of those many tasks – and so: ‘It would be a huge benefit for me if there was a consistent, alternative source of support for them to go to.’
The Witness Service may also be able to provide a separate waiting room for defence witnesses, so avoiding contact with the prosecution. Witness Service staff are there if defence witnesses need help to fill out the witness expense form too. They provide someone for witnesses to talk to in confidence (but not about the evidence in the case), and can even signpost and refer witnesses who have other problems to local Citizens Advice and other organisations.
Support from the Witness Service can help witnesses feel more confident and able to give their best evidence.
Make sure your witnesses are referred to the Witness Service
Referring witnesses in advance is quick and easy using the online referral form.2 Advance referrals mean that the Witness Service can contact the witness in advance of the trial date to offer support and information.
While advance referral offers significant benefits, witnesses can also be referred on the day of the trial directly to the Witness Service, which is based in every criminal court. Ask the court office where to find Witness Service staff.
There are many defence witnesses across England and Wales who are missing out on the services the Citizens Advice Witness Service provides. With your help, Witness Service staff can help more witnesses get the support they need.
By Marios Leptos, Head of Witness Service
1 Visit: www.citizensadvice.org.uk/about-us/citizens-advice-witness-service for further information
2 Visit: www.citizensadvice.org.uk/about-us/citizens-advice-witness-service/witnessreferral or speak to a member of the Citizens Advice Witness Service team at your local court