Vulnerable Victims and the use of Intermedaries in Court

Intermediaries in the news

On the evening of Monday 16th April, 60 JPs, 1 Crown Court Judge and 2 District Judges crowded into court 1 at Snaresbrook Crown Court to hear from Baroness Newlove of Warrington, the Victims' Commissioner and from Catherine O'Neill, Registered Intermediary and Chair of Intermediaries for Justice.

The event was about how JPs can help vulnerable victims, witnesses and defendants get the support they need in court. Registered Intermediaries (RIs) are trained professionals who assist people who may have communication problems in the criminal justice system. Many of us have only rarely if at all - encountered a Registered Intermediary in our courts so this was a very welcome chance to learn more about what they do and why we need them.

The audience listened to Baroness Newlove speak movingly about her own family's experience of being victims in the criminal justice system after her husband Garry was murdered in 2007 and how this had made her determined to see victims get better treatment. Yet, even now, she told us vulnerable victims still struggle to get access to justice. This was behind her report  'Voice for the Voiceless' published in January 2018 which reviewed the provision of registered intermediaries (RIs) for children and vulnerable victims and witnesses in England and Wales. Baroness Newlove told us that her review had found that not all vulnerable victims and witnesses who are entitled to and would benefit from an RI are receiving this assistance to give evidence. Her report had made a number of recommendations to Government including that the governance of RIs should be centralised to create a national RI service. This might avoid the post code lottery of the current system which means that there is unmet demand in some areas of high crime. She went on to highlight also a lack of awareness of the role of RIs, resulting in areas where there are far fewer requests for RIs than the recorded crime figures might suggest. For example, in Cumbria the number of requests per 1,000 recorded crimes is 5 times higher than in London.

In her presentation, Catherine O'Neill explained how an RI works, from assisting with ABE (Achieving Best Evidence) interviews in the police station, all the way to the court room. RIs are used for children and young people, vulnerable elderly people (the youngest Catherine has worked with was 2 years old and the oldest was in their 90s), through to adults with learning difficulties, mental health disorders, physical disorders, or physical injuries or illness that might impair communication. She stressed that trauma resulting from being the victim of a crime can significantly impair the ability to process information. As an RI appointed to assist someone in court, she would expect to prepare a report that the judge or JPs would see in advance that would contain recommendations such as taking lots of breaks in a trial or using simple language. There also needs to be a ground rules hearing where the judge and the prosecution and defence lawyers agree on how the trial should be conducted, including agreeing in advance questions to be asked of the vulnerable person. One of the other key recommendations in the Victims' Commissioner's report is that awareness of the role of RIs should be promoted to the Police, CPS, judges and magistrates and that training on special measures should include the role of RIs.

So as a Branch we were pleased to include in the evening a practical scenario-based training session, led by our vice-President HHJ Oscar Del Fabbro, about special measures, including RIs. We discussed the practicalities of assisting vulnerable victims, witnesses and defendants. Could we conduct ground rules hearings on the day of a trial when we did not have sight of the case beforehand; were there practical steps to assist a vulnerable person if it was not in the interests of justice to adjourn for an RI; conversely could we justify the delay in granting an adjournment so an RI could be appointed? With the insights of the Judge and the two DJs present we concluded that the answer to these questions is yes. Both Baroness Newlove and Catherine O'Neill highlighted the national shortage of RIs, which results in an average waiting time of 4 weeks. If we as JPs are more aware of RIs this will almost certainly increase demand that will exacerbate the problem unless action is taken to tackle it.

Erica Zimmer JPBranch Secretary, North East and East London A Voice for the Voiceless: The Victims' Commissioner's Review into the Provision of Registered Intermediaries for Children and Vulnerable Victims and Witnesses, January 2018