06/12/2004

Falconer pledges better deal for victims and witnesses

A better deal for victims and witnesses, with more specialist facilities in courts, was announced today by Constitutional Affairs Secretary Lord Falconer.

Lord Falconer said: "The needs and safety of victims must be at the heart of the way trials are managed. Giving evidence is a nerve-racking experience, especially for victims. It's even tougher for vulnerable victims of crime - such as children, older people, and victims of sexual crimes.

"If victims don't feel able to come forward offenders may escape justice and re-offend. For these reasons we are ensuring that by 2008 all Crown Court buildings and 90 per cent of magistrates' courts have separate witness facilities for victims and prosecution witnesses.

"We will also be increasing video links by 27 in Crown Court centres (89% are already covered) and making them available in 75 per cent of magistrates' courts. I have already announced that I intend to extend the use of 'special measures' such as video links to protect witnesses in anti-social behaviour cases."

Lord Falconer stressed that that these proposals were part of a wider package of measures to improve conditions and the court experience for witnesses.

The effective trial management programme has reduced the number of trials where witnesses are kept waiting, or attend but end up not being needed on a particular day. In the last year, the number of Crown Court hearings that failed to go ahead on the day scheduled fell by a quarter. For example, in Greater Manchester, the new procedures meant 1200 witnesses did not have a wasted trip to court.

"This all adds up to a better deal for victims and witnesses in the court process. These are practical measures that will help to make it easier for victims under great pressure - sometimes intimidation - and often faced with giving evidence against people they know well."

Lord Falconer was speaking during a visit to Wimbledon Magistrates' Court, which has a dedicated witness area for prosecution witnesses with a video link to the courtroom for vulnerable witnesses.

"We are joining with colleagues in other criminal justice agencies to raise our game on behalf of victims and witnesses. The police and Crown Prosecution Service are developing witness care units to support witnesses through the whole criminal process and throughout England and Wales."

Home Office Minister, Baroness Scotland said: "I welcome this five year Strategy which supports the ongoing work across Government to put victims at the heart of the criminal justice system. The Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act, which gained Royal Assent last month, will ensure that victims get the help, support and protection they need to rebuild their lives, as well as helping to convict the guilty. The establishment of an independent Commissioner for Victims will give victims a powerful voice at the heart of Government. The Act will also give victims a range of rights for the first time and help to increase support for victims by making offenders pay more toward compensation."

Witness care was one of the priority areas contained in Lord Falconer's Department's 'DCA Strategy: Delivering Justice Rights and Democracy', published today. It sets out the range of everyday matters and public concerns the DCA deals with - crime, asylum, family matters and civil advice on issues such as welfare rights.

(GB/MB)

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