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In many courts, traditionally victims and witnesses are asked to wait in sparse, unfriendly surroundings. So HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has invested £80,000 in victim and witness waiting rooms in five courts across the country – making a number of changes, including the addition of children’s toys.
Research conducted with court users has shown that small changes such as these can make the court experience less intimidating for some of the 156,000 victims and witnesses who give evidence each year – particularly children and the vulnerable.
The model victim and witness waiting rooms have been established at Nottingham Justice Centre, Manchester Magistrates’ Court, Newcastle Crown Court and Aldershot Justice Centre, with work ongoing at Liverpool Crown Court. They will provide a template for courts nationwide.
HMCTS worked closely with stakeholders, including the Victim’s Commissioner, the Witness Service and court users, to identify areas across the estate to develop and analyse the best way to support victims and witnesses through the court process. This work informed how the rooms were developed and they will now be used as models for further estate changes.
Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales, Baroness Newlove said:
'I welcome HMCTS’ initiative to enhance the victim and witness room facilities across the court estate. I am looking forward to seeing the pilot rooms and very much hope that they will set the standard for victims’ facilities in all court rooms across the country. The court process can be a traumatic experience for victims and any attempt to make this environment less impersonal and more comfortable is most definitely a positive step.
I am looking forward to seeing how the remodelled rooms can provide a change for victims and hope they will assist victims and witnesses to have a better experience of the court process.'
Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, said:
'Giving evidence in court can be a difficult and stressful experience so it is crucial that witnesses are supported to perform their invaluable role.
It’s our role as the Witness Service to provide information and support to help people feel as comfortable and confident as possible when giving evidence. We know all too well that even small changes to make waiting areas more comfortable can make big differences to a witness’s experience - providing a welcoming space for child witnesses is particularly important.'
This is on top of a range of measures the Government has put in place to help reduce the anxiety of attending court, including giving evidence behind a screen and the use of a registered intermediary. In criminal courts, the government is driving the increased use of video links – meaning more vulnerable victims can give evidence away from the court room and without having to meet their attacker face to face.
HMCTS is also assessing criminal courts to ensure they are properly equipped for victims and witnesses, and monitoring individuals’ experiences of the court system. This will provide a yardstick for key improvements across the estate. A range of work will be carried out in the coming months to improve the information available to victims and witnesses before coming to court – making the often painful process clearer and easier to understand.
The £1bn investment will ensure that HMCTS are providing targeted care to those who need it – by reducing unnecessary stress for victims and the most vulnerable, and lessening the emotional turmoil experienced through crime. That £1bn is made up of £855 million to modernise and digitise the courts, and £240 million to deliver a fully connected criminal courtroom.
More modern and robust technology will be put in place in courts, such as Wi-Fi, modern telephony and screens for sharing evidence. This transformation of the estate will create a user-focused and modern justice system that supports the most vulnerable.