Harriet Harman

Member of Parliament for Camberwell and Peckham. Mother of the House of Commons.

New Deal for Witnesses



11th January 2003


Thank you very much for inviting me to open this conference this morning.  I’m very pleased to be here and to have the opportunity to say a few things about the concerns the government and I have about witnesses.


Throughout the day you’ll be discussing the practicalities of using the new special measures for witnesses – so I’ll say a few words by way of context and background.


When thinking about what I was going to say this morning I found myself meandering between the issues concerning witnesses who are victims – and those who are non-victim witnesses – so I hope you’ll bear with me as I do this.


And we have to think of defence witnesses as well as prosecution witnesses and victims.


It has been something of a change for me to be thinking more about victims and prosecution witnesses when I started off my career litigating on behalf of suspects and defendants – and prisoners.


That broadening of focus from suspects alone, to the Criminal Justice System as a whole is the  result of two things


·        As a constituency MP, all the surveys in my constituency in the South London Borough of Southwark show fear of crime and lack of confidence in the Criminal Justice System as clearly top of the agenda they want government action on.

·        And of course concern about victims, witnesses and indeed the whole of the Criminal Justice System is at the top of my personal agenda as I am now the Solicitor General.  As such I assist the Attorney, as his deputy, in his responsibilities which include superintendence of the Crown Prosecution Service, referring Unduly Lenient Sentences to the Court of Appeal and consenting to certain prosecutions.


There are many reasons why public policy requires us to do more to ensure that witnesses are able to come to court to give their best evidence


To ensure justice is done we need to ensure that witnesses feel prepared to come forward and that means

·        Ensuring they feel safe in their community – there are some cases where witnesses are afraid to give evidence.  We need to be sure that they can be confident that if they are prepared to give evidence they will be protected.  That is the case with serious and organized crime – such as organized drugs crime and crime where a whole section of the community is intimidated by violence.  That is an important part of the Met police operation Trident to deal with gun crime.

·        Ensuring they feel safe in their home. That is the case with domestic violence where giving evidence against her husband may make the woman even more vulnerable.

·        Ensuring that giving evidence in court is not an ordeal. It’s also important to ensure that giving evidence in court does not add to a victim’s ordeal.  A woman who is giving evidence against her husband may be standing up in court against a man of whom she has been terrified for years. And she will may that his case is that she provoked him by being a bad wife, a bad mother.   A woman who is giving evidence against a father who abused her as a child will be re-living an ordeal that she has been trying to block out in order to get on with her life.  And through the CPS direct communication with witnesses scheme, victims can expect to be told by the CPS the outcome of the case in which they were involved rather than reading about it in the local papers

·        And we need to ensure that the reputation of those who give evidence in criminal cases is not wantonly damaged.  Of course the defendant must have the right to challenge evidence against them and challenge the credibility of prosecution witnesses.  But routinely and irrelevant assault on a witnesses reputation will ensure that lay people will go to great lengths to avoid the CJS rather than, as we with, supporting it.  .  A woman who’s giving evidence in a rape case may find that she is accused of consenting to the very acts of which she complains. A heterosexual man giving evidence as a victim inn a male rape case may find that he is accused of inviting the act that is the assault.  Of course prosecutors can, with the support of recent legislation, interevene to stop irrelevant questions.  But this should be an issue for the criminal bar as a whole.  You’ve stood up to protect the role of lay people in juries – what about lay people in the witness box? prosecutors tell me that they are proving important in enabling prosecution witnesses to give evidence and that  they have encountered no particular difficulties in succeeding when they have made applications for special measures.


·        Making it less inconvenient and costly for the witness. There’s also the more mundane but important issue of not subjecting witnesses to inconvenience and discomfort.  People’s expectations of how they will be treated by public services are higher.  Hospital waiting areas are transforming – schools now have new parents’ rooms.  The courts can’t be left behind. One of the objectives of our court modernization programme is so that witnesses can wait in comfort till they give evidence.  We want witnesses to have the sort of facilities I saw in Kingston Crown Court rather than the witness waiting room I visited in Snaresbrook Crown Court which looked worse than the pictures of Romanian orphanages that I’ve seen on TV


And we must be able to have separate facilities for child witnesses.  In hospital Accident and Emergency departments they now have separate waiting areas for children.  And we need to have separate facilities for defence and prosecution witnesses.  A woman I met in a Refuge recently told me that though her husband was remanded in custody, she was terrified while she was waiting to give evidence as his


And just as people don’t want to wait to see their GP, they don’t expect to wait – and despite being able to claim some expenses, lose a day’s pay -  to give evidence. We shouldn’t make witnesses wait too long, and subject them to adjournments and not tell them what’s going on.


All those objectives are now “policy”  to be delivered through the police, the CPS, the courts and victim support and the witness service.  And prosecuting counsel can introduce themselves to the prosecution witnesses and explain the proceedings – just as they do at the Bar in NI.


* So we are doing more to protect people who are giving evidence from within a community which is in fear

* And we are doing more to protect people who are giving evidence from a within a relationship in which they have been in fear

* And we are doing more to protect people who fear that the giving of evidence will be an ordeal which will add to their suffering as victims

* And – without going so far as giving over the court waiting areas on a contract to Starbucks -  we need to do much more to look after the comfort of witnesses.


In the Damilola Taylor case, the key prosecution witness, Bromley, was protected and her identity kept from a local community who knew her well – including her weaknesses..  The Attorney, and the DPP are considering in the light of that case and others, whether there should be some system for precognition of key prosecution witnesses, to test their evidence to see whether it is justifiable to build a case upon it.


Of course witnesses have an importance over and above each individual case.  They are the expression of legitimacy of the criminal justice system.  Witnesses, whether for the defence or prosecution – and whether or not they are a victim - are a critical part of our criminal justice system and we ignore them at our peril.  We don’t want to end up in the situation where the only witnesses are police, or other professionals.  We need lay people in our CJS – whether they be magistrates, juries or witnesses.


So our record is certainly not good enough in how we treat witnesses.  But that is recognized – and change is underway.


But we are also up against a secular tide against what can be characterised as a weakening of civic responsibility and community cohesion.


People do fewer things as a community, more things as individuals and families.  They are less likely to vote, less likely to sit together at the local cinema, more likely to watch films at home on video or on Sky.


Two of the Government’s central tenets are a belief in community and a belief that rights and responsibilities go hand in hand.   


·        calling the police and being prepared to give evidence is part of being a member of your local community.  And it’s important that the police continue to build their relationship with the community to ensure there’s no impediment to that.


·        You have a right to protection from criminality – but you have a responsibility to protect others from crime


If you know that a child is being abused, you don’t shrink back and say – it’s a private family matter – you report it and give evidence.  If you hear or see your neighbour is beating his wife – you should report it and be prepared to give evidence.


Victims have rights – but they have responsibilities too. We are working to ensure that it is easier for victims to exercise their responsibility.    If they don’t come forward to give evidence – the offender might repeat the crime.  I’m very taken with the way ACPO expresses this issue in respect of domestic violence.  They say there are not just one, but three categories of victim in each offence.  The primary victim, the woman who has been attacked and who may be attacked again, the secondary victim, her children who will have witnessed the violence and his next victim if he’s not stopped.


So, I will conclude by saying that

·        We must do more to protect witnesses and take care of them

·        That involves all of the criminal justice agencies, the voluntary sector and the bar and

·        It is part of our civic duty to be prepared to give evidence and help ensure that justice is done

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