Protecting witnesses vital for serving justice

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If you are unfortunate enough to be the victim of a crime, or a witness to one, and someone is charged with the offence and they plead not guilty, it is likely you will receive a witness summons requiring your attendance at the trial.

Depending on the seriousness of the offence, that trial will be held at either a local magistrates court or a crown court.

For many people, attending a court can be a very daunting experience, as they are far from hospitable places. Once you have made your way through security, it is fairly easy to identify the barristers and solicitors as they stride confidently around the building. You’ll see defendants and their families as they huddle outside a court chatting while they wait for their trial to begin and nervous witnesses can be seen asking court staff where they should go.

I remember a time, perhaps 15 years ago, where witnesses had little support and would have to sit next to glaring defendants outside the courtroom. Thankfully, these days, courts have a witness service and there are private areas set aside for witnesses. In recent weeks I have been spending time with the witness service at Preston Crown Court talking to them about their role.

One of the services they provide is a pre-trial court visit, which allows a witness to familiarise themselves with the court and learn about the nuts and bolts of giving evidence, so they gain a better understanding of what to expect.

The staff listen to any concerns the witness has and can liaise with the CPS in the event of special arrangements being needed to assist that witness give their evidence. On the days of the trial, the service support the witness by giving them a private area to sit, helping them with filling out expenses forms and guiding them to the correct court, as well as providing comforting cups of tea. The funding for this service is provided by the charity Victim Support, which is very reliant on volunteers who tend to work about one day each week.

The volunteers who provide this service are often retired local people, who have many years of experience. Rebecca Sinkinson who is the manager of the Preston crown court witness service would welcome more volunteers, particularly from people in their mid twenties or from people who are fluent in Polish or other East European languages.

Supporting witnesses is an important part of the criminal justice system and it is a rewarding role.

If you have some free time and this type of work interests you, the Preston Witness Service area office can be contacted on 01772 828422.

It is an opportunity to make a difference.

If you would like Mick Gradwell to give a talk to your society, a presentation or an educational lecture, contact 01253 600800 for further information.