Witnesses in criminal cases deserve to know the truth

The criminal courts are fucking horrible.

That is an inalienable truth. It is also a succinct way of summarising the findings of a report published last week by the Criminal Justice Alliance following a 20-month study of the Crown Courts. The paper – Structured Mayhem: Personal Experiences of the Crown Court – relies on observations of Crown Court proceedings and interviews with defendants, complainants, witnesses, lawyers and judges to reach the surprising conclusion that there may be areas of forestation of scatological interest to bears.

A bear crossing its legs and seeking direction from the CJA

A bear crossing its legs and seeking direction from the CJA

I’d nevertheless recommend having a read, particularly if you’re fortunate enough to have never had to appear in court. While there is little in the report to take lawyers by surprise, there’s a dark pleasure in the public vindication of the complaints that I and many others have been intoning for years. It’s not simply the fat-cat, legal aid-guzzling, bloodsucking, champagne-quaffing, three-piece-suited, self-interested liberal elite friends of the criminals – to borrow from Philip Davies MP – who are saying it.

Ordinary people – defendants, victims and witnesses of crime – know first hand that the system is an utter shambles, increasingly so due to the growing realisation of successive governments that justice, unlike health or education, is something the general public simply aren’t that excited about. Which means it is easy to find “efficiency savings” in court, CPS and legal aid budgets, year on year. In the same way that a madman with a machete gleefully hacking off your limbs one by one is making staged efficiency savings.

However, as cathartic as it is to rage against the government machine, a large part of the distress of attending court as a witness is, regrettably, unavoidable. And what jumps out from the potted anecdotes and vox pops collated in the report is the failure of those witnesses to understand how and why the criminal process operates as it does.

I don’t mean that pejoratively. The fault lies in part with the legal profession, for our chronic inability to communicate to the general public what it is we do and why it matters. Partly with popular culture propagating an Americanised myth of how the courts and justice operate. Partly with the media for grinding between the sheets with governmental phalluses quivering as they ejaculate falsehoods about the legal profession to pursue their own illiberal, anti-human rights, cost-cutting dogma.

What we need, it seems to me, is a proper, helpful, honest guide for witnesses in criminal proceedings. Not coaching, but aimed to prepare them for the grizzly reality of what they, through their public-spirited contribution to the justice system, are letting themselves in for.

Over the next day or two I’ll be having a think about what dirty little institutional secrets I, as a witness, would wish to know, with the aim of cobbling something together over the weekend. Any contributions will, as ever, be welcomed.

5 thoughts on “Witnesses in criminal cases deserve to know the truth

  1. Having, in my time, both sat as a Magistrate and worked as a Lay Prosecutor, my view is that most (all?) Courts are fundamentally let down by the buildings. The architects try to keep public/ legal professionals and remanded prisoners apart – so the building (ought to) have three sets of stairs, waiting rooms, toilets, etc. Designing a court building to do this must make solving Rubik’s cube look simple.

    We now add the complexity of keeping the IP, the witnesses and the F&R of the accused apart. Which would, theoretically, mean splitting the Public side of the court into three non-communicating spaces. It can’t be done.

    So we _used_ to fake it, by using Ushers (the best people in the court system!), Security and Police to keep the different groups apart. Prosecutors also had a role – in helping witnesses, in particular, to find a quiet/ safe place to sit and wait (and wait and wait).

    We used people to hide the faults in the buildings.

    Now we have got rid of half the Ushers, _all_ the Police and the few remaining Security never leave their cell area. The Prosecutors are so over-worked that they rarely seem even to speak to witnesses before the case is called.

    We end up with a system where those who have never been in court before – victims and witnesses – are uncomfortable, lost and intimidated at least by the system – and possibly by the accused and/ or the F&R of the accused.

    My advice to witnesses would be to sit in the public gallery (ideally in a different court!) until called.
    That way they tend not to meet the wrong people and they get a feel for how cases (are not) progressed and the language and ‘pace’ of the court.

    Oh – and witnesses shoudl find the Usher of their court and tell him/her where they will be.


  2. I was a witness in a GBH case, as a paramedic who’d attended the victim. It was 6 months after the job that the police first contacted me, because the victim had initially backed out of pressing charges then later changed his mind. Once I’d worked out which job of the hundreds I’d done over that period they were interested in, it came flooding back. That’s because I remember being terrified for about half of the time, since we were in a very rough area of a large city very late at night. A man had called to me from a balcony, and I’d bantered with him while he told me where to find the victim. Later he appeared in the flat as we tried to assess the victim. Qhile outwardly jovial, he took great pains to threaten us, and was looming over the victim and his friends. He was memorable in a number of ways, not least because of his foreign accent. When he left, they told me what I already knew – he was the assailant.
    The case was arranged, and postponed at the last minute, twice. Each time I’d rearranged shifts and private engagements to ensure I was free. When it finally got to court, I waited 3 days to be called. My 3 days off between shifts.
    I saw the victim whose injuries had been severe. I saw his friends, who were terrified of giving evidence because they were terrified of the perpetrator. I spoke to the CID sergeant who filled me in on the background. The assailant had claimed he was 300 miles away on the night in question. This was his defence – and all I had to do was place him at the scene. The policeman told me to try to answer the questions clearly and definitely, and to stay calm.
    On day 3, I overheard two of the jurors talking on the bus about the victim, and questioning his credibility since he was a recovering alcoholic. I didn’t report it because I couldn’t bear the thought of going through the whole thing again.
    I was finally called after the court should have finished for the day, having explained that I was supposed to be back at work the following day so that the court agreed to run late (3pm I think it was). I was asked a few questions, including identifying the accused as the perpetrator which I did. The defence barrister immediately began to question my professional skill. He had my suppositions based on the appearance of the victim, his visible bruising and his observations officially disregarded on the grounds that I am not an expert. I had explained that mechanism of injury is the biggest factor in assessing such injuries, and I’d been correct in my assessment from the hospital notes, but that wasn’t enough. Then the barrister set to work on my story, questioning every single aspect of my statement about who had said what. When I said I couldn’t remember who had made one comment, he said: “I don’t expect you can, it IS rather late in the day”. I wanted to retort that 4pm isn’t late in the day for a paramedic, but managed to keep quiet. I watched the jury tittering at the barrister’s little jokes, and saw how he practically winked at them.
    The accused was found not guilty. I knew and the police knew he was as guilty as hell. I knew the witnesses and the victim would now be scared to death that this man was on the loose.
    I felt sick and upset. I’m educated, articulate and strong and well used to standing my ground. But I felt violated in a way that would never have happened anywhere else, where I could and would have defended myself robustly – not to mention given some good comebacks to the barrister’s gags.
    I couldn’t see anything in that court that worked to find the truth – just an imbalance between a prosecutor who’d been given the case less than 48 hours earlier, and an expensive, clever and charmingly amusing defence barrister who’d had a year to prepare, and whose tactic was to destroy the credibility of all of the witnesses. I spent three whole days of my life sat there, and just over an hour being made to feel like an idiot who’d let down the victim while this barrister sneered at me.
    I realised then why my colleague had failed to remember the job.


  3. 1). The hearing will never, repeat ad nauseam, never take place at the sceduled date and time.
    2). Take a large flask with good coffee or tea because court services, where they exist, are expensively appalling.
    3). Be prepared to go home without seeing the inside of the courtroom. An alarming percentage of cases are cracked because the defendant pleads guilty or, becoming more common, the harassed CPS has lost the file :: the evidence :: the star witness (strike out all those which apply).
    4). Be prepared for the defendant, his family and his loyal team of bull mastiffs to be seated within four feet of you for the hour and a half before your case is called on.
    5). No matter what questions the defence or prosecution throw at you tell them what you know to be true and stick to it. You will save the highly paid barristers and the Bench lots of time and sweaty wigs if you don’t wander into the realms of imagined or ‘helpful’ fantasy.


  4. “The fault lies in part with the legal profession, for our chronic inability to communicate to the general public what it is we do and why it matters.”

    I practised law for 25 years until I realized I hated it, root and branch. I have a methodical mathematical logical engineers brain. Biggest mistake I ever made was to go into law. I was intelligent enough to do it but hated it.

    The fault is with the legal profession, not for the reasons you think, but because you are technical incompetents and because you are egomaniac assholes. Not all, but most. In the business, engineering or construction worlds you would be terminated after half a day.

    I echo Hoddy and Strider48. How the fcuk is it possible that the courts and lawyers cannot be online all the time? Why so many God damned personal appearances? Why cannot a lawyer fill out an e-form for an adjournment? Why is the convenience of parties and witnesses so repugnant to court managers?

    My jurisdiction just spent over $100M for a new court house a few years ago. No WiFi. No upgraded document control computer system – the extant one was programmed in the 1970s and will not work without line-printers. Jesus H. Christ, fucking line printers. No parking for witnesses, barristers or parties, fuck them anyway. Plenty of parking and palatial offices for judges and court bureaucrats and utterly palatial court rooms.

    I could go on for some time but thinking of all this causes me to require an adult refreshment. Immediately.


  5. Pingback: So you’ve witnessed a crime…10 things you should know as a witness (but probably won’t be told) | The Secret Barrister

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