Chapter 2 Witness Service and Victim Information and Advice – A Background
Development of the Witness Service
25. During the course of the 1980s recognition developed among criminal justice agencies that the needs of victims had been largely neglected and there was professional and political concern with witness issues generally and in particular with victims as witnesses.
"I was terrified to go to court. I don't like it much, I don't think anybody likes to go to court. I cannot suggest anything that would make it better. If it is the law to come you have to come". (Witness, Glasgow, 2004)
26. It was recognised that there was value in exploring the difficulties experienced by victim witnesses and it was also evident that by the end of the 1980s Victim Support had established itself as a credible provider of practical and emotional support for victims of crime and particularly, in England and Wales, was beginning to argue for better treatment of witnesses in court. By the end of 1995 almost all Crown Courts in England and Wales had a Witness Service managed by Victim Support and directly funded by the Home Office.
27. The then Scottish Office commissioned research on the experience of witnesses and a Report was produced in 1992. As a result of an approach made to the Procurator Fiscal and the Sheriff Clerk at Hamilton by Victim Support Scotland, the Hamilton Sheriff Court Working Group was established. The working group produced a final report in 1994 entitled "Supporting Crime Victims Within the Criminal Justice System". The Report included recommendations and conclusions specifically for Hamilton Sheriff Court but also acknowledged that much of the problems encountered would be common to many courts. In addition to the detailed proposals for improvement at Hamilton Sheriff Court it was suggested that the improvements might have a more general application. On the basis of local initiatives in Ayr and Kirkcaldy, Victim Support Scotland organised a conference in 1995 to facilitate discussion of victim and witness needs and issues in court and from this conference emerged an inter agency steering group whose remit was to consider the needs of victims and witnesses in courts and consider ways to address them. The steering group also assisted in establishing the policies and codes of practice which underpinned three pilot projects to take place in Hamilton, Ayr and Kirkcaldy.
28. In 1996, Victim Support in Scotland received funding for the three pilot projects from the Scottish Office. The funding was originally to allow the projects to operate until April 1998 although funding for an additional six months was subsequently agreed. By the autumn of 1996, a full time coordinator for each of the three projects was in place and the projects were officially launched on 15 November 1996. Two models of service delivery were undertaken in the course of the pilot projects; one model being provided by Ayr and Kirkcaldy and the other model being provided by Hamilton. The service at Ayr and Kirkcaldy was a general one where a coordinator was appointed to recruit and train volunteers to provide a witness support service within the Sheriff Court to all civilian witnesses and their families (this was similar to the lines along which Witness Support had developed in England and Wales). In Hamilton a co-ordinator was appointed to develop services for victims and witnesses which would be provided by trained volunteers from the local victim support schemes but the project was also, in the spirit of the inter agency working party, intended to coordinate the efforts of all relevant agencies to develop the level of service offered to victims, witnesses and their families. In summary, the service model envisaged at Ayr and Kirkcaldy was to be a general one whilst the model at Hamilton was more specific and focused on vulnerable witnesses in particular.
29. Broadly speaking, in Ayr and Kirkcaldy the co-ordinator of the scheme would be sent a list of witnesses cited to appear by the Procurator Fiscal and project staff would write to witnesses advising of the existence of the service and send letters to the relevant Police Officers in an attempt to ensure that any vulnerable witnesses were specifically offered help and assistance and advance arrangements to meet with witnesses would be made if requested. In both projects staff would have a presence in the court building and it was found that most contacts with victims and witnesses arose from the presence of the project staff in the court building on the day of the trial. It was clear that in both Ayr and Kirkcaldy substantial numbers of people attending court received some kind of service from the Witness Support teams. The main group contacted were prosecution witnesses of whom a minority were victims but other groups were not excluded by the service.
30. In Hamilton due to practical difficulties (lack of office space in court building and the involvement of coordinator in a serious road accident) progress was slow. Discussions were held with the Procurator Fiscal to make arrangements to identify victims, rather than all witnesses and the procedure for identifying victims among prosecution witnesses was initially time consuming although regarded as worthwhile by the Procurator Fiscal. The project was not in a position to accept referrals until May 1997 but during that month showed 42 recorded contacts. Overall at Hamilton, a much higher proportion of contacts was with known victims, as would be expected given the different focus.
31. It was apparent from the projects that what most people wanted from the service was answers to questions about the court generally, about procedures, facilities, waiting room arrangements and the duration of time they were expected to be required at court.
"It was a long time to wait. It would be better if you got a time. I missed an appointment with the doctor because I did not know I had to stay this long". (Witness, Glasgow, 2004)
32. Some witnesses clearly valued simply having some one to talk to who offered a friendly face and was not directly related to the case. A number of witnesses also reported that contact with the witness service volunteers helped "put them at ease and relax them".
33. Professionals interviewed about the project spoke very favourably of them and viewed the input of the service as being very valuable for witnesses.
"I was nervous today. I had been treated fine by the Procurator Fiscal and the staff here." (ie Witness Service staff) (Witness, Hamilton, 2004)
34. Evaluation of the projects in 1998 concluded that although it could not be said categorically that a universal witness service would increase the number of people prepared to be witnesses, it did appear that the presence of the service made the experience of going to court "not as bad as expected" 2. Overall it appeared that witnesses and criminal justice personnel were positive about the pilot projects and it appeared that if an advice support service were established in court for witnesses they would use it. Consideration was given to the question of who should provide a service to witnesses and Victim Support emerged as the most obvious candidate to provide a national service should a decision be made to introduce one on a permanent basis. There was also clear evidence to suggest that the most relevant and effective support would require a court-based service. It was subsequently agreed that the Service should be rolled out nationally and that responsibility for service delivery would remain with Victim Support Scotland. It was also agreed that the model of service delivery would be based on that developed at Ayr and Kirkcaldy courts during the pilot period and the organisation was quickly able to establish the service in "cluster" courts local to Ayr and Kirkcaldy. In June 2000 Victim Support appointed a Witness Service manager to oversee the expansion of the service to all courts and the final service was established in Rothesay in August 2002.
35. Types of Crime Referred (Witness Service), April 2003 to March 2004 3
36. In 2003 an evaluation of the Witness Service was carried out by the Scottish Executive 4 and established that the Witness Service was at the time provided in all 49 Sheriff Court locations, was staffed by 32 court-based co-ordinators and assistants in 23 offices, supported by a dedicated training officer and an administrative manager and organising approximately 300 volunteers at any one time. At that time staffing levels were set to increase in order to extend the operation of the Service to the High Court. Notices and leaflets had been produced advising of the remit and work of the Witness Service and it became clear from discussions with volunteers that many were initially surprised and impressed by the high standards and expectations set by the Witness Service. It was clear from the evaluation that the Witness Service had been successfully extended to every Sheriff Court in Scotland and had some contact, usually brief, with the majority of people who attended at court as witnesses. Most contact was in the form of providing basic information rather than intensive emotional support and the work of the service was typically (and perhaps appropriately) low-key. The Service would, where appropriate, arrange for anxious witnesses to have pre-trial court visits and would make themselves available where required to provide emotional support to witnesses, both in the waiting room and would also go in to the actual courtroom with the witness. The evaluation concluded that the great majority of witnesses valued the Witness Service and that the Service's volunteers were often seen as the only people in court to treat witnesses with consideration and respect.
37. Status of Service User (Witness Service), April 2003 to March 2004 5
38. The opinions of other agencies were sought in the course of the Evaluation of the Witness Service and there was an overwhelming view any support or assistance that could be provided to "normal" witnesses would be welcomed. Indeed one member of the Procurator Fiscal Service commented that there had been "a screaming need" for some-one to take care of prosecution witnesses and that the Witness Service had "filled a void" created by a lack of resources and initiatives elsewhere in the system. A common view advanced was that the Witness Service had successfully established itself in the Sheriff Courts as a valuable resource which had good relationships with other court groups and which consisted of staff and volunteers who were unobtrusive, approachable and committed.
Victim Information and Advice
39. The Victim Information and Advice service developed from public concern in Scotland regarding the lack of the routine provision of information to victims regarding the progress of cases. Research was carried out in 1994 to examine the information needs of victims in Scottish criminal cases 6. The finding of the research, published in 1995 confirmed that people did indeed want such information, particularly in serious cases. As a result of a proposal put forward by the then Lord Advocate, Lord Hardie, a feasibility study was undertaken in 1999 and the Victim Information and Advice service was first piloted in the Aberdeen Procurator Fiscal Office in November 2000 and then in the Hamilton Fiscal Office in May 2001. Certain commitments were given by the Scottish Executive in the terms of the "Scottish Strategy for Victims" which was published in January 2001.
40. The aim of the pilot project was to improve services to victims, witnesses and next of kin by setting up a dedicated Crown Office victim and witness service. Victim Information and Advice was thereafter officially launched on 14 June 2002 and Victim Information and Advice teams were set up throughout Scotland with the roll out being completed on 30 December 2004. The provision meant that victims of serious crime, bereaved relatives and vulnerable witnesses could be referred by Procurator Fiscal Deputes to their local Victim Information and Advice team who in turn would be able to liaise between relevant bodies and convey information.
41. The Victim Information and Advice staff in addition to understanding the needs and concerns of people affected by crime are all specially trained and can provide a range of information and services. They can:-
- Provide information and advice about how the criminal justice system works and what victims and witnesses should expect;
- Update victims and witnesses regarding the progress of their case;
- Arrange a court visit if required in order that victims/witnesses can be familiar with the layout of a courtroom before the trial;
- Arrange for victims/witnesses to be put in touch with other useful services and organisations which may be of assistance to the particular victim/witness (ie Witness Service).
42. Information about cases can be provided by Victim Information and Advice from the moment the case is first reported to the Procurator Fiscal through until final conclusion and disposal of the case.
43. Whilst Victim Information and Advice serves individual victims and groups of victims in all cases of domestic abuse, sexual offences and racial crime and those cases likely to be tried at Sheriff and Jury level, the service is also provided to all child witnesses, vulnerable witnesses and next of kin. Victim Information and Advice also works closely with other statutory agencies such as the Police and Scottish Court Service and with voluntary agencies such as Victim Support, Women's Aid and Witness Service.
44. As at 1 December 2005 it was recognised that over 74,000 victims and witnesses throughout the whole of Scotland had been assisted by Victim Information and Advice since its commencement. The main categories of referral to Victim Information and Advice have been and continue to be; victims in all serious cases where the nature of the charges are indicative of solemn proceedings, next of kin in cases involving death where criminal proceedings are possible and deaths where a fatal accident inquiry is to be held, next of kin in cases where there may be significant further enquiries or where in the circumstances it is considered that the assistance of Victim Information and Advice would be appropriate, victims in cases of domestic and racial abuse, victims in cases involving sexual abuse and cases involving child or vulnerable witnesses.
Relationship Between the Witness Service and Victim Information and Advice
45. The Witness Service and Victim Information and Advice have developed almost simultaneously and both in response to unmet needs identified regarding the information and support previously available to victims and witnesses involved in the criminal justice process. It was recognised that certain work and functions of both organisations could potentially overlap and an Operational Protocol between the organisations was established in July 2002 and has since been revised. The protocol did however recognise that "an overlap in certain activities will be required to ensure that the most effective service is provided" but also acknowledged the need to "minimise duplication".
46. Staff from both Victim Information and Advice and the Witness Service were interviewed in the course of the evaluation of the Witness Service which was carried out in 2003 and the staff from both organisations reported "amicable supportive relationships" and indicated that they worked in partnership. Victim Information and Advice Officers spoke of making referrals to the Witness Service for pre-trial visits and general support and appeared to recognise that the Witness Service was the "court based agency and had the time available". It was stressed that Victim Information and Advice is primarily an information service, making most contacts by letter or telephone, with a clear and specific client group whereas the Witness Service is available to provide support to all victims, witnesses and their families.
47. There was a general consensus that the Victim Information and Advice service and the Witness Service (along with Social Work) all had relevant roles and that so long as they each understood their specific remit they should be able to "mesh together to enhance the overall service to witnesses". A few of the professionals interviewed in the course of the evaluation considered the remit of Victim Information and Advice to be quite limited and thus not seriously impinging on the established supportive role of the Witness Service.
48. There is certainly a clear demarcation between the organisations in that the Witness Service is court based and can make general contact with all victims and witnesses for the purpose of providing information and support at court whereas Victim Information and Advice is attached to Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, has specific categories of cases referred to them and may make and maintain contact with witnesses throughout the duration of the process for the purpose of providing information. From all accounts it appears the development and work of both organisations has had enormous significance in addressing the issues of concern about victims and witnesses that have become prevalent in the last 20 years.
49. The next logical development would be to extend the Witness Service to the District Court in particular the Glasgow Stipendiary Courts which have all the powers of a Sheriff sitting alone. This could perhaps be considered in the light of the statutory provisions in implementation of the McInnes Report in the forthcoming Summary Justice Bill.
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