The Victims’ Commissioner and her team held a live discussion and Q&A of her new review of special measures on 26 May.
On 26 May 2021, Dame Vera Baird QC held a live webinar to launch her latest review on special measures. This interactive webinar provided stakeholders with an opportunity to engage with Dame Vera on her views for the next steps in special measures provision, based on the findings of her latest review.
Published on 19 May 2021, the Victims’ Commissioner’s review, ‘Next steps for special measures,’ examined the provision of protections for vulnerable and intimidated victims, known as ‘special measures.’ In her report, the Commissioner found the current system is not working as well as it could with victims and witnesses falling through the gaps and not being offered appropriate special measures.
Special measures are a series of provisions that help vulnerable and intimidated witnesses to give their best evidence in court and help to relieve some of the stress and anxiety associated with giving evidence. Under the Victims Code, all witnesses have the right to have their needs assessed by a police officer and the Witness Care Unit, a unit within the police force.
The review explores the current provision of special measures for vulnerable and intimidated witnesses, from the initial assessment of their needs all the way to trial. Drawing on testimony from criminal justice and witness support professionals, it outlines victims’ and witnesses’ wider experiences of court and special measures, including during Covid, and makes recommendations on how to improve the provision of special measures and address barriers to access.
View webinar transcript
Hello everybody, and thanks very much for coming to the presentation of our new research.
I’m Vera Baird. I’m the victims commissioner for England and Wales, and our report, which we will show you in a minute or two, is called: “Next steps for special measures”.
We think this will be very interesting for you, informative, possibly surprising in places and we also hope that we’re able to get your support to help to implement some of the recommendations that we make in the report which are very important for witnesses and I think for public confidence in the criminal justice system.
Can I give you a tiny bit of context about that work within the work we do as the victims commissioners office? So, my role as “VC” for England and Wales is to promote the interests of victims and witnesses, to encourage best practice in how they’re dealt with, and to keep the code under review. So I guess talking about special measures we’re really in the first two of my obligations, but of course the Victim’s Code does set out the availability of special measures and to some extent who’s responsible for providing them.
So to achieve our work, which is those three categories, we work in, broadly speaking, two ways. So the first is that we cultivate a very very wide network of victims organizations. Individuals, certainly, but we’re not allowed to be involved in any individual case, though we often do derive policy ideas from individual cases. But we broaden our reach as much as we possibly can to victims groups from, you know, victim support, rape crisis and the male survivors partnership, anti-social behavior help, those groups have helped people whose relatives are murdered abroad, families of victims of road crashes; the more we can reach out to, the happier we are. Because, of course, what victims need is not what the holder of the office thinks they need or what they tell the holder of the office they need, sometimes in common with other victims, sometimes in their circumstances. So, as wide as we can so we can then deliver what help they need with the help of the other side of our networking, which is those who can in fact deliver what victims need. So, health sector, housing, local authorities, community support of one kind or another, but also, the criminal justice system, of course, which is where we’re focusing basically today, the police, the cps, the court service, probation parole board, mental health tribunals, and of course ministers, MPs, select committees, and the judiciary.
So, that element is gathering in the information about what’s needed and lobbying for it in the very very broadest sense. And sometimes our experience in doing that brings to our attention an issue on which we think we need to know more. So it gives rise to a need for research and the wider world for victims in which we are, sometimes actually just presents us with research questions too, and if we can produce in-depth high-quality reports, as this one is, which contain new information or a fresh understanding about victims issues, to enable everyone to target better how they should be dealt with, then that is another dimension to how we do our work. And it is obviously why there’s a victim’s impact, it’s about public confidence and justice too.
So this helps us to frame our future lobbying, but it also raises questions for people to come back to us and say you know have you got this quite right, should you do it a different way, and there will be, once we’ve done a presentation as Sarah, to whom i’m going to hand over a minute will tell you, an opportunity for questions, which we’ll try to respond to.
So we’re really lucky in the victims commissioner office to have Dr Sarah Poppleton and Dr Julian Molina as our researchers, and they have carried out this piece of work about special measures.
The special measures, very briefly, in legislation since 1999, they’re all brought in at different times, enabling people to give their best evidence as victims and witnesses, described by one judge in this research as the best step that’s been taken in criminal justice system in the past 30 years, undoubtedly allowed a lot of people who could never have managed to testify at all to do so, and also reduce the stress and the risk of further suffering for many more people who’ve been able to tell their story and to take a step toward justice.
Nothing’s ever perfect, and we found that although these special measures were working well, there are, indeed, next steps to recommend. So I’ll now hand over, if i may, to Dr Poppleton and Dr Molina to present our findings, and then we’ll come back to your questions and some discussion.
Sarah, okay, i’m sending live now so wait for the red box.
Thank you, Vera. I’m going to begin with just a couple of points of housekeeping. So firstly, as Vera said, there’ll be a virtual Q&A session at the end of our presentation, so please do feel free to submit questions on the chat. And I understand that you can also vote for other people’s questions if there’s one that you spot that you’d particularly like to see answered, so please do that. We will endeavour to answer some at the end. Julian on my team is going to moderate that. Um, this has worked well in rehearsals, but it’s our first live event, so do please excuse us if it’s a little bit clunky, and bear with us if there are technical glitches in that part of the presentation. We’d also encourage you to discuss our event online and we’ve been using the hashtag #SpecialMeasures on Twitter and so forth to do that, so please join in if you feel like it.
So, special measures. Um, what we want to do today in our presentation is give you basically a good flavour of the report and what we see as the key recommendations we’re asking for, and the evidence underpinning those. We have got actually 21 recommendations in the whole report if you’ve read it or would care to read it. But you’ll be pleased to know we’re not going to read through them all this morning, just the ones that we think are the most important. So if you go to the next slide please Tom.
So I think in this particular review the key thing that we were asking was basically how good is current provision and how might it be improved going forward. We used a range of (just by way of background) we used a range of different methods. We had interviews, particularly within what we called our expert group, so these are national level experts people who are steeped in the area of special measure and have a good sort of top-down perspective on policy and practice in this area. But also we complemented that with interviews with some of those responsible for assessing need and seeing special measures playing out on the ground in the field as it were and we did that in selected areas so we could look a little bit about what was happening across the country because practice is variable. And also, importantly for our purposes today, we carried out three surveys. The first was with crown court judges, the second with magistrates and district judges and the third was with the court-based witness service. And we felt that these three groups were particularly well placed to observe special measures in action, if you like. And we’re drawing quite a lot on the findings from those surveys in our presentation today.
So I’m aware that some of you will know special measures very well, others perhaps a little bit less so, but, in essence, what they are is a range of measures designed to help vulnerable and intimidated witnesses give their best evidence in court. So who qualifies as vulnerable? Well anybody under the age of 18, or any witness whose quality of evidence is likely to be diminished due to a mental or physical disorder or disability according to the Mental Health Act 2007. And then thinking about intimidated witnesses, they’re defined as those suffering fear or distress in relation to testifying. And some groups, including complaints in sex offence cases, automatically fall into this category, as will uh victims in domestic abuse cases under the Domestic Abuse Act when that takes effect.
So, on the screen here at the moment we’ve got listed a few of, what we’ve got listed, the list of special measures, if you like. I’m just going to pick out a few of them and to tell you a little bit about them in more detail. So probably the key one, the most familiar and most often used one, are physical screens which block the witness from the view of the defendant and also from the view of the public gallery. A witness can also give their evidence live over an audio video link and that’s often from another room in the court, a specific link room, which has become more prevalent during covid because of the need for social distancing. Or it can also be from a specially set up facility completely away from the court, like a remote evidence center, and we’ll say a little bit more about that later. Evidence can also be pre-recorded, what you often call the achieving best evidence interview. So this is the evidence in chief of the witness which isn’t given live, it’s pre-recorded and there’s a legal presumption that evidence will be given this way in some cases, for example when the witness is a child. And now of course we also have section 28 in which not only is the evidence in chief pre-recorded, but also the cross-examination is pre-recorded as well. So that takes the witness completely out of the trial process, if you like, in real time. And that, of course, has been rolled out for vulnerable witnesses across the crown court estate during covid. And then the last one I wanted to mention were registered intermediaries, who are communication experts appointed by the court to help a vulnerable witness particularly with communication difficulties give evidence.
So next slide please Tom. So I think the first thing to say, and we’ve done that, we said it loudly and clearly in our report, is that actually special measures are quite a success story for the criminal justice system, as Vera alluded to. Um, so one of our experts, for example, talked about how difficult it was before special measures to get particular witnesses into court, and they’d been a serving police officer before they took on a policy role. And I think this is quantified in the graphs that we’re showing you here. We asked our magistrates and judges in our survey: would they say whether the provision of special measures to vulnerable and intimidated witnesses has improved or stayed the same or worsened in the time that they’ve been sitting? And what you can see from the graph on the right-hand side is that almost three-quarters of our judges, so that’s around 70 percent of judges, felt that they’d improved in the time they’d been sitting. And amongst magistrates and district judges we had about half saying they’d improved and about half saying they’d stayed the same. So very few thinking that they’d worsened. Quite a big uptick, quite a big vote of confidence there from the judiciary and the magistracy. Next slide please Tom.
So it’s a success story, but nevertheless and notwithstanding that, is there needs going unmet and are there any gaps in provision? Well, we strongly suspect that there are gaps in provision, particularly in the magistrates court. One of the things that we asked our magistrates and judges was this question: in your experience how often are vulnerable victims and witnesses having their needs accurately assessed prior to coming to court? Because we were particularly interested in whether or not needs assessments are always going well, whether or not needs are always being seen and articulated and responded to. And you can see from the graph on the left hand side that amongst magistrates and district judges just over half 53 percent felt that this was happening sometimes or less often than sometimes. So that’s looking at the orange and the yellow shading on that polo chart there. And amongst crown court judges we had about a quarter of our group saying the same. So that’s suggesting that sometimes need is going unmet and that the needs assessment isn’t always perfect. And we actually asked a further question of our judges in particular, so one of the members of our advisory panel suggested that they felt that the automatic event eligibility in sex offence cases, um, the automatic eligibility to special measures created something a little bit of a tick box attitude amongst those assessing need, those police officers assessing need. So they perhaps would think sex offence case needs a screen without delving into the needs of the victim or witness in a little bit more detail, giving a full needs assessment. So we asked a question: have you come across complainants where special measures have been granted but other vulnerabilities not identified? This is particularly in sex offence cases, and we found that 39 of our judges, two in five, agreed with that statement. So that’s clearly something that they do come across and, in fact, one judge wrote about how he had had to deal with a victim who had very severe ptsd and had to impose very tight constraints on the defence in their questioning, and this he felt was something that should have been picked up much earlier in the process. So, next slide please Tom.
So we’ve looked at, um, needs assessment and the suspicion that we have that needs aren’t always fully assessed. Why might that be? Well, we took a really in-depth look at the process of assessing need, and this is a diagram of that process. I’m not going to go to through it in enormous detail, but the gist of it basically is that the process spans four strokes or five different units or agencies, beginning with the police officers, the first responders and or the investigating officers on the crime, and then moving to a civilian team within the police which is usually called the witness care unit. Simultaneously the needs assessment becomes the responsibility of the CPS who, of course, make the application for special measures, and then it goes to the court who are charged, of course, with providing those special measures in conjunction with the court-based witness service, who give the witness support in court. And that feels like a kind of a process that has advantages and disadvantages, if you like. On the plus side it means that there are multiple opportunities for all of these different agencies to spot need along the way, but also on the negative side what we heard about in our interviews in particular, was that their scope for miscommunication and information loss across agencies and across interfaces and across the different systems that they all use, it also means that needs can need to be articulated more than once and there might be a level of repetition for the victim. But also, um, duplication, potential duplication, of efforts so uh asking a police officer to get information that, for example, the witness care units already got, because the communication has gone a little bit awry. And also a consequence in this, we think, is that no one actually, although five agencies are in charge, or or have a role in needs assessment, nobody actually has overarching responsibility for that part of the process, or an overview of the whole process. So the responsibility is being passed along the line and that, perhaps, can be problematic in so far as you haven’t got anybody looking across the whole piece, does it work? So if we go to the next slide, Tom.
So this gave rise to two interlinked recommendations of what we’d like to see. So firstly we think it would be a good idea for the police and the CPS to work together to sort of streamline the process of assessing need, really. Assessing need and also applying for special measures. And one of the ways that we think that they could do this would be to perhaps take the police officers out of the process a little bit. So, focus the responding officers on assessing the immediate needs of the victim or witness, the safeguarding concerns and so forth, but putting the responsibility for special measures, in particular, back with the witness care unit, so that it is discussed at a later stage when once you actually know, once we know that the case is actually going to go to a trial and special measures become more relevant, or the majority of special measures become more relevant. And we talked about, I talked about, the fact that no one agency seems to have overarching responsibility. We think that this should sit with the witness care units, that they should have overarching responsibility for special measures needs assessments the whole way through, making sure that everybody plays their part. And importantly they should be resourced to speak to all witnesses and armed with a thorough and standardized process for that. Because what we found when we looked across our areas, was that practice understandably did vary and some needs assessments would be, were, more thorough than others in other areas. Some witness care units spoke to all witnesses, others, because of the resource constraints, didn’t. And we think it’s important that everybody gets the same thorough treatment at this stage of the process. So those are the observations around, um, assessing need. I’m now going to hand over to Julian who’s going to talk about a few of our other recommendations about later in the process of delivering special measures.
Okay i’m sending Julian live now, wait for the red box. You’re muted Julian.
First unmute myself, um, thanks Sarah. Next, I’m going to talk about the need to offer more choice of special measures. So these are the gaps that we found in two particular areas. So we found some reason to be concerned with the availability of some special measures and their under use. So principally that would be evidence in private, and also special measures which could be expanded to other victims, so section 28 pre-recorded cross-examination taking place before a trial. So for evidence in private, we found 98 of crown court judges said this was rarely or never used in their observations. Our survey last year with rape survivors found that 11 out of 31 survivors had this measure. We feel that more use should be made of this measure. As one witness service survey respondent told us: clearing the public gallery is rarely if ever used. This is a measure available to vulnerable and intimidated witnesses just as much as any other but whenever a witness asks for it and gives reasonable concerns it doesn’t even get applied for. So for section 28 we found broad very broad support for the use of this measure amongst judges and from respondents to the witness service survey um they felt it was very effective at lessening witness anxiety and made giving evidence more accessible.
So we’ve also set out, you’ll find this in the introduction to our report, that monitoring data suggests witnesses who access this measure section 28 had shorter cross-examinations compared with those who only had their evidence in chief pre-recorded and then waited for the trial to commence. So for these reasons that we set out, we’ve recommended these two key things. Firstly, in its guidance to prosecutors on closing the public gallery the CPS should remove references to exceptional cases. The Ministry of Justice should engage with the judiciary to promote use of this as a special measure during the evidence of a vulnerable or intimidated witness. Secondly, HMCTS introduces section 28 for intimidated as well as vulnerable witnesses across crown courts as soon as practically possible. In due course consideration should be given to offering it more widely, especially when trial dates are a long time in the future.
So next i’d like to talk about our observations on disparities between special measures provision in the magistrates court and crown court. So we could move to the next slide, please, thanks. Um, so, we understand that the magistrates court have a higher throughput of cases, that it’s a different mix of cases, that um timeliness is exceptionally important in the magistrates court. Nevertheless there seems to be reasons in our research to be concerned about provision of special measures in this part of the court estate. So provision in the magistrates court seems to lag behind the crown court. We’ve had a sense that the crown court is better adapted and better prepared for special measures. So this is very problematic for vulnerable and intimidated witnesses, and comes in the context of the domestic abuse act, which will enable victims of domestic abuse to be eligible for special measures. This will put existing provision in magistrates court under strain with a large cohort of new victims and witnesses to provide special measures for. So to give an example of one of these disparities in provision, we asked magistrates, district judges and crown courts: in their opinion how good is the provision for screening witnesses from the defendant in their court? So from this we found 41 percent of magistrates said provision of screens was poor or very poor. This compares with 22 percent of crown court judges. So to this end we’re calling for an overarching recommendation here. So this is magistrates courts needs parity with the crown court through equal provision of facilities and equipment to guarantee the availability of tailored support for vulnerable and intimidated witnesses. So we can move on to the next slide please.
So moving on to the situation during covid. This research was conducted over the last year and we needed to reflect on what the current provision was under covid arrangements. So after the court closures in the early part of 2020, their reopening introduced new challenges for courts to effectively introduce special measures, in amongst social distancing and other health and safety measures. So we asked the judiciary, magistracy and the witness service to reflect on the situation during covid. So we found some reasons to be concerned about the quality of information provided to victims and witnesses, as well about choice and the availability of remote evidence centers and their use.
So, in terms of communication with victims and witnesses we found 58 of witness service staff agreed that witnesses understand exactly what special measures will be in place for them in advance of the day on which they’re due to give evidence and that’s shown on the graph from the right. To further go down in detail on that, that’s only 15 strongly agreed with that statement. So I think in amongst that, that’s a key area to understand how victims are informed to know what to expect on the day. So, there was a mixed picture in terms of provision as well, with a sizable minority of crown court judges saying provision of screens had worsened, but on another side of things around a third of magistrates and crown court judges saying live links had improved under new arrangements. So we also heard about the issue of screening the screens with witnesses being afraid of people in the public gallery or being seen outside of specific individuals and being put off from giving evidence knowing that they will be seen if broadcast on live link so it’s important that so-called double screening is effectively in place, and I think the research throughout the different sources of evidence emphasize that. Lastly we found issues with the use of remote evidence centers.
We think full use needs to be made of this provision many PCCs have funded these facilities and they’re available to use and they can offer reassurance to victims and witnesses and allow them to give their best evidence. We’d like to see further use of these.
Moving on to the next slide. When we talk about special measures we also need to consider the wider court experience for victims and witnesses. So that includes traveling to court, entering court buildings, the waiting areas, exits. And we really found that this was an important area as well as the specific measures in court. So our case study interviews emphasized this point to us that many fears and concerns victims might have come from these parts of the court experience. Um, whether that is affording travel costs to come to court or seeing defendants or the supporters in and around the court building. So as this quote emphasizes, um, so there’s no concept, there’s witness service staff member told us, there’s no concept of where they’re traveling from, whether they’re vulnerable, whether they’re desperate to give their evidence in order to get out of the way, um, on with their lives and that’s so wrong. So thinking about the court building, um, currently the victim’s code sets out that when attending court, and where possible, you’ll be able to enter through a different entrance to the defendant and wait in a separate waiting area before and after your case has been heard, that’s wherever possible. But some core buildings do not currently have separate entrances for victims, however, where informed, HMCTS staff will make arrangements to ensure that you do not have to see the defendant on arrival. Now our survey found and interviews found that there are examples of where judges’ entrances are being used, but we suspect that this isn’t being made available nearly often enough. When we ask magistrates broadly about the provision of exits and entrances to buildings and how good they are accommodating the needs of vulnerable and intimidated victims and witnesses, just 10 percent of magistrates said they were good or very good. This compares with 36 in the crown court. So for these reasons, we’ve set out two recommendations in this area. So, firstly, HMCTS sets out a protocol reiterating the importance of witness needs in listings. This should include the requirement that trials, including vulnerable and intimidated witnesses are not double listed, so that’s scheduled as a backdrop backup for another case in the same court. Secondly, HMCTS and the judiciary ensure that a separate entrance to the court building is available to all vulnerable and intimidated witnesses, even if this means using a judicial or staff entrance. The alternative entrance must be suitable for disabled witnesses to use.
So moving on to the last slide in this section, um this, is on measuring delivery. So let’s take a bit of a step back from the day-to-day delivery, to emphasize the importance of having an overall picture, to understand delivery, to monitor performance and assess where there are gaps and areas for improvement. So our office has previously set out the problems with the current collection and availability of national victim data in the criminal justice system and we set out these proposals in our victims law paper published last year. Um, back to the start of the presentation, um, we talked about the different stages in the special measures process. We need data from across these different agencies to understand provision, but we found that the police, CPS, HMCTS have limited to no national management information systems that record data about special measures provision. Though we understand that addition to the common platform will partly address this. We did find the National Crime Agency were able to provide data and to record data on registered intermediaries and demand supply, but overall this, you know, creates a barrier, an important barrier, to effective policy making and delivery. As this interviewee from the NCA told us, and I’ll just read out the middle part: “the justice system doesn’t know how many 11 year olds and under are witnesses or victims of crime, and of those how many subsequently go to court. So if you want to implement such change, um, the most important thing is to build the infrastructure and meet demand first and what and build your cadre of registered intermediaries with the right skills in the right places”. So without this data we can’t understand delivery, we can’t understand demand, and that’s why it is certainly important that we address this big gap in national data collection. So we’ve set up this one recommendation here but there are others in the report. This recommendation is that the MOJ and Home Office should develop a national protocol for data collection on special measures in conjunction with the other agencies involved in delivery. This protocol should include the recording of data on victim vulnerability and intimidation, witness choice over special measures, applications for and granting of special measures, as well as collecting data on protected characteristics to further ensure there are disparities in provision. So with that all said, I’m going to hand over to Vera who’s going to talk about the next steps.
Okay, thank you very much Sarah and Julian. Please read the report. There is more than we’ve had time to feature today, but I think you will find this very thought-provoking and interesting stuff. It’s probably pretty obvious that if you have five agencies trying to do an assessment, people are going to fall through the cracks. And, in fact, focusing it on the witness care units pretty well chimes in with what the victims code hopes to do. But it inevitably raises the need for more cash, I think, because particularly during covid, they’ve been red in police risk registers, have witness care units, because they are overworked, holding on to a lot of people who are with them a lot longer than usual because of the backlogs, who are suffering more complex needs because of the um pandemic. So there’s definitely a need for more funding there, but it seems logical to put them together. What I think is great about this piece of research if, i may say so, you know, as a compliment to my own researchers, is that, you know, normally you would maybe ask the witness care units and all of the people assessing how they’re getting on and then you would ask victims what they thought but of course they’ll only have been once to court and won’t really have anything to compare it to. So the brilliance of this is actually asking the judges right at the end, who’ve seen many and many and many a case, and can frankly and straightforwardly say we do see people who should have had help and they didn’t get the help that they they needed. And we are immensely grateful actually to the judiciary, district judges, crown court judges and the magistracy, who really helped us by being very frank and being prepared to be interviewed. And the really subtle but very very present point that one of our victims advisory groups members made, which is about if you’re ticked in as an intimidated witness you may not then get the personal assessment has really proved to be very much reflected in what other judges have said.
I wonder, Tom, can we just pop back a few slides so we can just feature the issue about screening the screens. So when people go on a court visit knowing that they want to give their evidence by a live link they might see a scene like that, which as you can see shows the magistrate at the back and the clerk and so on, and the individual is happily out of court giving their evidence not in the same place as the defendant and so on. But they come to court and they see that they will be featured on a tv screen like that pointed at the public gallery, pointed at the defendant, they really don’t want that at all. And screening those screens, although at first it seems quite counter intuitive that you hide somebody away, screen them, and then screen the screens as well, is very important. And that was one of the refinements that was being missed, we thought, when somebody was automatically just being dealt with as intimidated. It is great that HMCTS have taken that on very very strongly and are trying to equip courts now with the facility to screen screens and we’re very grateful for that. The section 28 provision just seems to us to be obvious, but it will obviously need planning. The Scots rape review recently advocates this straight away, the Northern Ireland rape review has advocated it straight away, and we think the sooner it can be rolled out to intimidated victims and witnesses the better. Because the backlogs are getting longer and they are the most vulnerable who are likely to suffer and not be able to get treatment for any trauma that they’ve suffered, so let’s get them out of the queue, acknowledging it’s going to need a bit of planning because it’s a bit of a change in the way that the courts work. Pretty obvious that magistrates should be catching up with the crown courts, especially now domestic abuse victims are intimidated automatically in that category, because that’s where most of their work is. And collecting data is also very important. What was really interesting spin-off from this was the understanding that you can screen the screens and do everything you want in court but it’s far too late if somebody has either been waylaid deliberately or has just been frightened by seeing, you know, either barristers or police or the defendant and his family as they’re coming into court. So extending the understanding that witnesses need the protection of the courts for a longer period than just when they’re testifying is another very, very interesting outcome of this research. So I do commend it to you, there are some things we will need help trying to deliver. They all look as if they should be achievable and they’re very important to improve the delivery of services for witnesses, but, of course, there’s a massive dropout rate of victims now in the criminal justice system, across all kinds of case, and so if we can give them better provision, we ought to be able to hold onto more, which is in the whole interests of the criminal justice system itself.
So we probably have some questions now and I think it’s probably Julian who’s going to deal with the questions and send them on to the right person to answer. Yeah okay sending Julian live now. Um so we’ve had a few questions I’m looking at which are getting the most number of thumbs up so i’ll start off with that one which is, I think, gonna be for you, Sarah. So did any of the judiciary say how often they refuse special measures and the reasons for doing so? Okay send you live now. Yes we did ask that question, actually, um and what we found was off the top of my head, Ii’m not sure this is exactly right, but it was about 85 percent of judges said they either always or almost always granted special measures. But speaking to this disparity between the crown court and the magistrates court, we found that only 70 of our magistrates, (uh magistrates and district judges, but actually that sample was mostly magistrate) only 70 percent of them said that they always or almost always granted them. We didn’t actually ask the reasons why they might not grant it but we did get a few clues um in the survey in the open text responses. So particularly from magistrates, one of the things that came out was special measures being requested too late in the day. Um, although in our conversations with um those delivering special measures it was really emphasized that, you know, the courts will try their very best to do them even on the day, and of course things move very quickly through the magistrates courts. But one of our recommendations is that there should be no time limit to special measures applications as a result of that particular finding.
It’s sending Julian live now, great. And I think the next one’s going to be for you, Vera, and maybe you want to chip in, Sarah, too. So some of these changes seem quite simple to achieve and very impactful, for example screens in magistrates court, why do you think they aren’t in place already, and what can be done to support courts to implement them? [Okay sending you live now.] I suspect that the catalyst for the magistrates court is going to be the domestic abuse legislation that’s what made domestic abuse complainants automatically intimidated. Prior to that I don’t know, but one guesses that the fact that it’s not the most serious cases that are being dealt with there has led to a sort of devaluation or, you know, a lowering in priority, perhaps of trying to equip them as well as in the crown court. I’m not sure about that it’s just a guess, but clearly if we are to sustain domestic abuse witnesses they’ve got to be protected from having to give evidence face-to-face with the person that they say has abused them. I think that does happen in the magistrates courts that people get screens and so on but they’re just not as used to it because they’re not dealing with so many serious cases. The investment that’s needed obviously has to be funded but the imperative is the legislation, I would have thought. I don’t know if Sarah and Julian found anything specific about why they were uh behind, perhaps one or other of those could chip in. Sarah, are you happy to? Yeah, no, I think it’s pretty much as Vera said, that, in terms of special measures anyway, slightly the poor relation, um because they’re just not as used to special measures. A lot of the cases that they see are lower level, so it’s just not quite such a slick process, and probably the investment hasn’t been there, and that’s what we saw with that slide Julian showed about the screens, the poor screen provision. So that’s going to need to step up quite quickly and, yes, as we said, one of our biggest recommendations is that the two need parity.
So we’ve had a question coming from Rachel Almeda, um, which of your recommendations could be taken forward in the upcoming Victims Bill? That’ll be for you, Vera. In so far as they need legislation, um, I mean, I suppose they…, if you’re asking which are priorities, I mean they’re all priorities for us because these are the key five recommendations that we’ve picked out. But to put, for instance, the focus on the witness care units isn’t something that you need to have legislation about, that’s about resourcing. Properly equipping the magistrates court is, it is, you know, not a thing that you need to legislate for. Section 28 has been in place since 1999, though it just hasn’t been implemented, and I don’t suppose it needs any refresh of the legislation, just the political will, really, to drive it forward in the interests of victims. So I don’t think that there’s much of this that actually demands legislation. As the earlier question said some of the things are fairly obvious and not difficult to do. The question is why they haven’t been done before, and of course we hope that by shining a spotlight on them now we can accelerate that process. Again, I don’t know if Sarah or Julian can point to anything in the report that would require legislation that we would lobby to get into the victim’s law. I think Sarah may have. [Yeah, sending you live now.] So one of the, um, recommendations from our victims law paper that we published earlier this year is repeated, in fact i think a couple of them might be in special measure in our special measures report, but one that stands out for me is about all children under a certain age, I think it’s the under under the age of 10, um, being offered a registered intermediary in particular. And that agencies need to be able to show that that’s been offered. So that’s one of the ones that is actually in the victims law paper, and I think the other kind of group of recommendations which it would be great to get some oomph behind in terms of legislation, if we possibly can, is the stuff around data. Because they’re, all of you who work in this area will know that the data from the criminal justice agency side on victims is really sparse. We don’t know anything about the protected characteristics of victims so we can’t say whether particularly things are discriminatory or not from the data anyway, um, and so that is one area that, um, we’ve made some recommendations in the report. And we certainly made some recommendations in the victims law paper around that. And I think Julian alluded to it, what would be absolutely fantastic was if the common platform captured victim data so that in the same way as you can track offenders going through the system, you can also track their victims as well, so that you can know what the demand is and the extent to which the demand for things like special measures were met, um, through sort of tick box data capture from the administrators at the various points in the process.
Okay and Julian, sending you live. Great, um, another question come in, so: is there any additional work ongoing to have ISVAs more recognized as a special measure for RASSO cases? Um, I think I’ll throw that to you, Vera. I’m hopeful that in the end-to-end rape review when the report comes out there’ll be some reference to that. I suppose it would be a guarantee if you made them a special measure so that when anybody was assessed they got allocated an ISVA just like screening the screens that might be a real guarantee that everybody who needs them gets them. But there’s obviously a big resourcing issue behind that to make sure that they’re available. For me, if we can make sure that there’s appropriate provision of them, then it’s it’s less about categorizing them as a special measure and more about setting out a protocol between the ISVAs and the those who train ISVAs so that there is a recognized professional training, a recognized accreditation that can transfer over to the courts so that they are happy to have ISVAs in the court with their complainant when they’re giving evidence. A big problem for ISVAs currently when we’re looking at the narrow area of criminal justice, because, of course, ISVAs do a lot more besides just support people into court, but we have, in our own survey we found that if there is an ISVA, complainants in sex offense cases are twice as likely to stick with the case, so that is a major importance. But we do find that some courts welcome ISVAs as members of, as it were, the professional team, and other courts won’t have them in, um, presumably because some lack of trust or some misunderstanding that they’re not just you know the complainant sister or best friend but they are in fact a professional whose integrity can be relied on. It seems to me that accreditation that can guarantee that they are people of integrity who can be relied on, who are properly trained, which of course they all actually, to my knowledge, are, but that kind of guarantee ought to mean that more people are allowing them in the criminal courts, where it’s absolutely vital to have them. I mean, the blow to somebody who’s had an ISVA for maybe six months or a year helping them from time to time with all manner of practical things, so they become that person’s professional best friend when the rape case is considered in any way, and then they get to court and often they don’t know if they’re going to be allowed the ISVA in court. It depends which judge it is, in some cases, so, they might arrive at court and the most terrible time in the aftermath of the offence they complain of, which is confronting, giving evidence about it again, they’re denied the person who has been their supporter right through. It’s a massive undermining of confidence and kind of, you know, undermines the whole purpose of special measures, in a way. So I think that’s the mischief, uh, really, and sure, you know, if you called them special measures it might add a bit of oomph to that argument, but I think the government is getting that point and I’m hopeful that it will take it forward. [Okay sending Julian, I think last question please.]
Okay, um, this is the last question so I’m gonna bundle a couple together if that’s okay. So firstly, Kevin Mcketrick has asked: judiciary have publicly questioned widening the use of remote evidence centers due to the impact on quality of evidence, he asks how is this view challenged, and Chris also asked what is your expectation of PCCs in improving the situation. We’ve had other questions that we, sorry, we haven’t got to but I think those will be for you, Vera. Oh, we’ve had another question sorry come in about the similar role: what can local criminal justice boards do, too. So Julian carried on uh saying that there was a further question about what local criminal justice boards can do which I could hear but you couldn’t because our amazing producer chopped him off in the middle of his sentence. Um, they’re real questions, uh they truly are. I am not sure that the challenge from the judges about remote evidence was really about remote evidence centers, as opposed to about giving evidence from your home or somewhere like that, which during covid, you know, it took off as a way that it could be be done, and that’s, it obviously has some inherent problems in it, and if they were worried about that then i completely understand it. A remote evidence centre, which would have an usher or someone similar from the court present ought not to have those difficulties at all and has all the obvious advantages for a victim or witness that they’re away from the court, they don’t have the risks of confrontation and so on. The quality of the technology, you know, has, I think, been a real one for some time. But, and, we, in the course of this research, we found some quite serious criticisms of the technology issues and some a little bit about the arrangement of, not so much remote evidence centers, but the internal live link rooms. And because we were worried about them we went straight to HMCTS with them rather than waiting to put them in this report, and I feel, we feel, confident that even between our results about poor technology coming out, which were about last November when we did the survey, to the time when we were talking to HMCTS they’ve given, you know, they’ve put a technological expert in every court and they have really set about investing properly to make sure the technology works. So I would hope that, you know, the judges don’t have to worry about it as a secure place to give evidence, and that HMCTS have really put some effort into cracking the technology problems. So I hope we can persuade the judges that it’s just a very good thing, where a person chooses to do it that way. And we’re not, nobody’s foisting section 28 or remote evidence centers on anybody, it’s just another choice, isn’t it, which you’ve properly explained gives a witness the confidence that they can be comfortable in one of those choices giving their evidence.
PCCs and local criminal justice boards, they run together quite well in the sense that most PCCs, certainly when I was one chair, their local criminal justice boards, and their forums where hopefully everyone will come and be frank about what’s going well and what’s not going well. And the whole, um, you know, team Newcastle, as we called it, um, not without a bit of triteness, I suppose, could get together and put forward, so PCCs I think need to give that level of leadership. But the local criminal justice boards can resolve a lot of stuff. There are individual problems that obviously call for a local resolution, sometimes about technology or logistics and such things, so I think, you know, local is very, very important for the provision of this kind of protection.
So um, I don’t know whether it falls to me to thank everybody for their questions and for their attention but to whoever I now pass over, everyone’s nodding, so it is up to me. Well, that’s a pleasure for me. Thanks everybody for coming any more questions send them in, you know how to email the victims commissioner in any event. Any suggestions about how we go forward with this will be very well received indeed. We hope you found it interesting, thought provoking and that you can come along with us as we try to implement some of the recommendations of this report. Have a good lunch.