After the value and consistency of use of intermediaries was brought into question, Geoff Coliandris looks into how the best can be achieved in securing testimonies from the most vulnerable witnesses.
After the value and consistency of use of intermediaries was brought into question, Geoff Coliandris looks into how the best can be achieved in securing testimonies from the most vulnerable witnesses. In October 2017, the press reported on the conviction of a 45-year-old Norfolk man for rape of a child (Two-year-old girl gives evidence in UK abuse case, The Guardian [online] Oct. 10 2017). The case was remarkable for reasons beyond its patently abhorrent details. The defendants decision to plead guilty was shaped by the strength of the evidence gained from his two-year-old victim. She is believed to be the youngest witness to have ever given evidence in a UK criminal case. Behind the headlines, it is now known that police appointed a registered intermediary (RI) to help interview the child. In addition to the benefits (personal to the victim and financial to the authorities) brought about by the defendants guilty plea, the case signalled a message to offenders that they should no longer assume they were immune from prosecution because their offence involved a child or other vulnerable victim/witness. This message resonates beyond child sex offences. The case features in the recent report, A Voice for the Voiceless by the Victims Commissioner for England and Wales and is held as an example of good practice. The report examines the operation of the Witness Intermediary Scheme (WIS) through which RIs are matched with vulnerable witnesses (VWs). While the report contains evidence of progress, it also raises a catalogue of serious and pressing concerns. The picture it paints is one of a system under considerable strain characterised by inconsistency, and weaknesses in staffing, systems, knowledge, cultures and organisation. This article overviews the reports key findings and highlights some issues surrounding RIs which should be of specific concern to the police service. Registered intermediaries Section 29 Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act (YJCEA) 1999 established intermediaries within a range of special measures available to certain categories of vulnerable witness. Section 16 YJCEA allows special measures for witnesses who are under 18 years of age or in circumstances where the court considers their evidence may be diminished due to mental ill-health, a significant impairment of intelligence and social functioning or a physical disability/disorder. RIs were first offered referrals during a pilot scheme launched in 2004. The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) subsequently set up the WIS to implement the intermediary special measure and to regulate the use of RIs. The WIS has been available to all 43 English and Welsh police forces since 2008. While the MoJ retains overall governance and management responsibilities for the WIS, the National Crime Agencys (NCA) Witness Intermediary Team operates the matching service between RIs and VWs. RIs enable police to gather complete, coherent and accurate (VC 2018: i) evidence from VWs in line with the MoJs (2011) Achieving Best Evidence guidance. Crucially, RIs help to make the justice process accessible to some of the most vulnerable people in society while ensuring cases are dealt with justly. In some cases they make the difference between a witness testifying or not. According to the VC (2018) report, the demand for RIs is increasing (in 2009 there were around 100-115 requests per month which currently stands at 550 cases per month). There are on average at any one time approximately 135 RIs in England and Wales available to take on cases, but demand and availability are not evenly spread or indeed adequately met across the counties/forces. The VC calculates that, on average, there are 20 cases a month where requests for RIs are not matched. This amounts to 250 vulnerable victims and witnesses every year possibly being deprived (p.i) of their access to justice. Table 1 (below) summarises some further key features