Victims’ Commissioner launches review of ‘Special Measures’ provision in the Criminal Courts

Some victims, including those of the most serious sexual offences including rape, are being forced to come face to face with defendants because courts are not set up to provide them with the protections they are legally entitled to while giving evidence.

And this situation has been exacerbated as courts deal with the challenge of adhering to social distancing regulations introduced as a result of the Coronavirus.

Concern that vulnerable and intimidated victims are not always receiving the support they need when giving their evidence has prompted the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales Dame Vera Baird QC to launch an in-depth piece of research into the provisions which are known as ‘Special Measures’.

These measures are designed to help victims and witnesses to give the best quality evidence they can and can include screens to shield them from the defendant; using remote evidence centres which are completely separate from the court and allow evidence to be given via a video link; allowing evidence to be pre-recorded; and using trained communications specialists to help witnesses while giving evidence.

In the first phase of her review into the provision of Special Measures Dame Vera has today (29 July) published a literature review of existing research into this issue. The review was conducted by Dr Samantha Fairclough from Birmingham Law School.

This review’s findings included:

  • There is limited available research regarding this issue, what there is focuses almost exclusively on trials in the Crown Court, with a distinct lack of information on trials of less serious offences in the magistrates’ courts, including the youth court.
  • There appears to be a prevailing view among criminal practitioners, and some witnesses, that evidence given by video link has less of an impact on jurors and is therefore avoided. This is despite any empirical evidence which supports this view.
  • Evidence that defence witnesses can be less well supported than prosecution witnesses, despite being equally eligible for special measures.
  • A survey of victims and witnesses in 2010 found that 92% of those whose evidence-in-chief was pre-recorded, 89% of those who used a live link and 85% of those using a screen found these measures helpful.

Dame Vera’s own research team will now follow Dr Fairclough’s review with its own detailed examination of special measures and their provision and will publish its findings later in the year.

Commenting on the launch, Dame Vera said: “Victims should be at the centre of the criminal justice system, but they can often feel like they are an afterthought or mere bystanders.

“I hear many examples of issues with provision of special measures – just recently I was made aware of a situation where a rape victim was denied access to screens and had to come face to face with the person on trial for attacking her – which just gives you an idea of the kind of treatment some people are being exposed to.

“Victims and witnesses are being assured that special measures will be available with some then arriving at court to find they are not –  adding to their stress and anxiety.

“That is why I am so determined to have a thorough examination of this issue so I can identify why things are not working the way they should, and what needs to be done to ensure victims are given support and protections they deserve and are entitled to in law.”

The next phase is a programme of research with frontline staff involved in identifying the need for special measures and providing these, as well as research with vulnerable victims themselves.

Dame Vera continued: “Giving evidence to a court can be a worrying and, for some, traumatising experience. Special Measures were introduced to help make this process easier. They are not a ‘nice to have’ they are a legal entitlement.

“This piece of work is extremely important and will hopefully lead to a much better experience for witnesses and victims which is crucial,” she concluded.

The full review is available here.