Ministry of Justice
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Improved care for young, vulnerable witnesses

Improved care for young, vulnerable witnesses

MINISTRY OF JUSTICE News Release (024/09) issued by COI News Distribution Service. 25 February 2009

Plans to give young, vulnerable witnesses better support and encourage more witnesses to come forward with evidence of crimes have today been published by Justice Minister Maria Eagle.

These will enhance measures designed to make it less daunting for children to give evidence, and come alongside wider proposals in the Coroners and Justice Bill to put the needs of victims and witnesses at the forefront of the criminal justice system, and so aid the Government's drive crackdown on crime. They also encourage a better and more consistent support to young and vulnerable witness, as well as individually tailor the processes in place.

They include allowing young people more choice about the way in which they give evidence; formalising rules that allow a trusted adult to be present when children are giving evidence via video link; extending this support structure to include young people under the age of 18 years and allowing vulnerable defendants to use an intermediary to help them understand the questions they are asked when giving evidence.

Justice Minister Maria Eagle said:

"Giving evidence in court can be a frightening experience for children and other vulnerable young people. Over the past ten years we have made significant improvements to the way they are treated- but this does not mean we could not do better.

"We have a responsibility to make sure that everyone, and especially young and vulnerable witnesses, receive the support they need to give the most accurate evidence. We must also ensure that witnesses are not prevented from offering evidence by the fear of what could await them in court.

"That is what the plans published today do. They recognise that all young people are different, and must be treated as such, and improve the support services available in the courts."

Over the last ten years video links have been introduced so that young people can give evidence from outside the courtroom and do not have to see the defendant. If they give evidence in courts, vulnerable witnesses may be screened from the view of the defendant, be offered an intermediary to assist them in understanding questions. In addition, the public gallery may, in some cases, be cleared and judges and barristers may remove their wigs and gowns to make the court room less intimidating.

The Government's response to the Improving the Criminal Trial Process for Young Witnesses consultation, published today, identifies further scope for improvement, including offering greater flexibility so that young people can give evidence in the way they want. Many of the proposals have already been put to Parliament as part of the Coroners and Justice Bill.

Notes to editors:

1. The consultation paper was published on 22 June 2007 and the consultation period ended on 19 October 2007.

2. A total of 58 written responses were received from a wide range of organisations and individuals.

3. The 'Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999' has enabled major advances to help young witnesses give their best evidence with a range of Special Measures, including the use of an intermediary. Also since the Act there have been major improvements in the information and support available for witnesses including the 'Young Witness Pack'; advice from Witness Care Units; and support from the court-based Witness Service. The Victims' Code of Practice also imposes obligations on criminal justice agencies, which includes help to those who are vulnerable and intimidated.

4. Special measures consist of evidence provided by live link, video recorded evidence in chief, screens round the witness box, giving evidence in private in sex offence cases and those involving intimidation, assistance with communication and giving evidence with the assistance of an intermediary.

5. We will also be publishing guidance for local areas on how to review the support services available for young witnesses and how to set up specialist young witness support schemes.

6. Amendments to the special measures provisions are included in the Coroners and Justice Bill which was introduced on 14 January.

7. The Government decided not proceed with the following recommendations:

* A legal presumption for the use of live links

* Visual recording of witness evidence during the trial

* A presumption that young witnesses will give evidence in private

* Formal accreditation of legal practitioners in cases involving young witnesses

8. Please contact the Ministry of Justice Press Office on 020 333 4 3525.


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