Victims and witnesses will be given more support than ever before with double the number of courtroom experts soon to be available.
Victims and witnesses will be given more support than ever before with double the number of courtroom experts soon to be available to help them give evidence, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling announced in February.
Government funding for specialist support services has more than doubled to over £92 million in 2015/16, including an increase in local budgets to fund vital services on the ground.
Registered Intermediaries (RIs) are crucial for victims and witnesses including children and those with mental health issues, physical disabilities or learning difficulties. By doubling the number of experts to help these vulnerable victims and witnesses understand what is being asked of them and to communicate their answers. This can mean the difference in some cases between whether a witness is able to testify or not. The support also aims to help the victim’s give their best evidence, which is a vital part of justice and also assists in their wellbeing.
How the Registered Intermediary works
A witness is eligible for the assistance of an intermediary ‘(a) if under the age of 17 [now 18] at the time of the hearing; or (b) if the court considers that the quality of evidence given by the witness is likely to be diminished by reason of any circumstances falling within paragraph 2 article 4 of the 1999 Order).
The Registered Intermediary Procedural Guidance Manual (2012) sets out good practice and the procedure in detail. In summary:
1 When a police officer identifies that the witness might benefit from the assistance of a Registered Intermediary the officer should speak to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to discuss the possible involvement of a Registered Intermediary in a case.
2 The police should obtain the necessary consents from the witness. The police officer contacts the Witness Intermediary Scheme matching service and submits a ‘request-for-service’ form. Attempts will be made to match the witness’s communication abilities and needs to an available Registered Intermediary with suitable
expertise operating in the geographical area.
3 The Registered Intermediary conducts an assessment of the witnesses communication abilities and needs. The Registered Intermediary provides a preliminary report for the interviewing police officer (either oral if the assessment and interview take place on the same day or in writing if it happens on a subsequent day). The report assists the police officer in how to plan the Achieving Best Evidence (‘ABE’) interview. The Registered Intermediary assists during the ABE interview, intervening if necessary to advise the police officer on communication with the witness.
4 The Registered Intermediary writes a report for the court. It provides advice and makes recommendations with examples to those who will question the witness about how most effectively to do it. It is sent to the CPS who will attach it to the Application for a Special Measures Direction. The timetable for an
application and procedure are set out in Part 29 of the Criminal Procedure Rules.
5 The application for special measures should be heard by a judge at the Pleas and Case Management Hearing (or magistrate at a preparatory hearing in the Magistrates Court) and in any event as soon as possible. If the application is contested then the Registered Intermediary should attend the court hearing in order to explain the report and its recommendations.
6 The Registered Intermediary attends the witness’s court familiarisation visit to assist with communication. They can advise the Witness Service on matters relating to the witness’s welfare of which the Registered Intermediary (who is not a witness supporter) may be aware. They can advise on timetabling of the witness evidence and when and how the witness can watch their ABE interview to refresh their memory.
7 Ground rules' for questioning must be discussed between the court, the advocates and the intermediary before the witness gives evidence (see Application for A Special Measures Direction (Criminal Procedure Rules, rule 29.3 and 29.10) at Part F, The Criminal Practice Directions of October 2013 and The Equal Treatment Bench Book chapter on Children and vulnerable adults) in order to determine the practical aspects of the way in which the witness will be questioned. See also The Advocate's Gateway Toolkit on Ground Rules Hearings.
8, The Registered Intermediary, having taken the intermediary oath, assists during the giving of evidence. They sit alongside the witness in the live link room (or stand next to them if they are giving evidence in court) in order to monitor communication. They intervene during questioning when appropriate and as often as appropriate in accordance with the ground rules and the recommendations in their report.
If at any stage the Registered Intermediary who assessed the witness and wrote a report for the court is unable to continue in the case or to assist at trial or to assist at re-trial then there is a hand-over procedure between the first Registered Intermediary and a substitute who is sourcedthrough the WIS matching service. The new Registered Intermediary must herself assess the witness and write her own report, which can, where appropriate, consist of adding an addendum to the existing report.
This compliments a wider package of reforms to smooth the path to justice for victims of crime including spending on vital support which has more than doubled under this government – reaching over £92million next year (2015/16).This will give victims access to the best possible support, no matter where they live in the country, and help ensure they are not alone in coming to terms with the impact of crime. The majority of this will be given to Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) to commission victims’ services based on the needs of their communities. The government has also been able to confirm that the funding to be provided next year will be an increase on their indicative budgets.
The use of intermediaries
There has been some opposition. It was said, for example, that intermediaries would interfere with the process of cross-examination. Others suggested that they were expert witnesses or supporters of the witness. They are not, although a suitably qualified expert witness would make a good intermediary. All intermediaries and expert witnesses are bound by a duty to the court, are independent and neutral. They are properly registered and their use is a step to improve the administration of justice without a diminution in the entitlement of the defendant to a fair trial.
It is worth remembering the exact role of the Intermediary which is to;
communicate (a) to the witness, questions put to the witness, and (b) to any person asking such questions, the answers given by the witness in reply to them, and to explain such questions or answers so far as necessary to enable them to be understood by the witness or person in question.’
How To Become a Registered Intermediary
The Ministry of Justice has overall governance and policy responsibility for the Witness Intermediary Scheme (WIS) which includes recruitment. The WIS is operated and managed on behalf of the Ministry by the National Crime Agency (NCA).
Recruitment of Registered Intermediaries takes place in response to need and resources. As a substantial number of offenders suffer from disabilities which cause them to have limited language ability and communication skills, learning disabilities, and to be acquiescent and suggestible.
Experts with speech and language skills, adult learning difficulties, and psychiatric and psychological experience particularly intellectual ability or social functioning may well be suitable.