In the Media

Criminal trials cancelled because fearful witnesses fail to attend

PUBLISHED May 7, 2009

Hundreds of trials are being cancelled or adjourned because witnesses fail to attend court to give evidence, despite reforms to improve their treatment.

Thousands of witnesses still do not arrive at court. Of those who do, nearly 15 per cent would be unwilling to repeat the experience if they witnessed another crime, an inquiry found. Some were fearful for their safety and others found the experience of giving evidence too frightening, its report said.

Nearly 300,000 people were called to give evidence in 2007. The report said that people may be less prepared to come forward than in the past, however. ?Inspectors believe that the unwillingness of some witnesses to give evidence again is indicative of . . . the levels of service received,? it said.

One reason may be a ?declining sense of civic responsibility? the inquiry concluded. Another is that ?witnesses are more fearful of coming forward because of recriminations they may face?. Employers may also be unwilling to grant paid time off to attend; and, because society is more mobile than in the past, people may also have commitments to travel.

Another deterrent is lengthy waiting times ? an average of one hour ten minues in magistrates? courts and three hours 46 minutes in Crown Courts.

The inquiry, by the Crown Prosecution Service and the Inspectorates of Constabulary and of Court Administration, looked at the treatment of victims and witnesses at all stages of the criminal justice process. They concluded that there was ?still some way to go if victims and witnesses are really to feel they are placed at the heart of the system, as the Government has pledged?.

Although most witnesses felt safe in the courthouse, 16.7 per cent did not, especially when entering or leaving or in its vicinity: some courtrooms had signs indicating the witness waiting areas. The inspectors also found that the use of ?special? measures to protect vulnerable witnesses was variable. They said: ?In one Crown Court we saw screens that were not fit for purpose being used in a kidnap and rape case.?

The inspectors found that after the witness care units were set up there had been a rise of 10 per cent in attendance, to 85 per cent by last August. The number of trials that failed to go ahead on the due date also fell. But in 2007-08, 10,702 trials ? 4.7 per cent ? ended on the day they should have started, because a witness failed to attend or withdrew evidence. The inspectors also noted that 3.5 per cent of trials were adjourned because witnesses failed to attend.