Witnesses to crimes are significantly less likely to trust the justice system, official research says

Exclusive: Witness support charities describe the findings as 'alarming'

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The Independent Online

People who have witnessed a crime are significantly less likely to trust the justice system than the rest of the public, according to new research published by the Government.

An official analysis of national crime data carried out for the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) concluded that witnesses had much lower levels of confidence in the police, Crown Prosecution Service and the courts than the rest of the population.

Witness support charities said the “alarming” findings proved that people who witnessed crime were being “completely overlooked by the criminal justice system” and called on the Government to do more to ensure they were not discouraged from coming forward.

The Witnessing Crime report analysed the findings of the 2013/14 Crime Survey for England and Wales, an annual study on the impact of crime based on interviews with around 35,000 adults. It found that a third of the population had witnessed a crime in the previous year.

Only 42 per cent of witnesses said they were “very” or “fairly” confident that the UK’s criminal justice system was effective, compared to 51 per cent of people who had not witnessed a crime. Witnesses were also “significantly less likely” to be confident that the police were effective at catching criminals, the report said.

 

Witnesses were similarly pessimistic about the effectiveness of the CPS and the courts in dealing with criminal cases, and were less likely to agree that the justice system as a whole treats people fairly. Only 71 per cent of witnesses believed that those accused of a crime were regarded as innocent until proven guilty by the system, compared to 78 per cent of non-witnesses.

“Confidence in the Criminal Justice System does appear to differ between witnesses and non-witnesses of crime, with non-witnesses being generally more confident than witnesses,” the report concludes. “Collectively, these findings suggest that witnesses’ perceptions of the CJS are likely to be influenced by their own personal experiences of crime.”

Karen Froggatt, the director of the charity Victim Support, said: “It is alarming that witnesses have less confidence in the justice system than the public as a whole, so more needs to be done to improve their experiences. This includes making sure witnesses are kept informed of where, when and if they are required to give evidence, and have access to special measures in court if required.”

She added: “People who come forward as witnesses play a vital role in the criminal justice system. Without their willingness to testify and give up their time, it would be much harder to convict offenders and secure justice for victims of crime.”

Guy Dehn, a barrister and the director of the charity Witness Confident which offers advice and support to witnesses, said that their experience is too much like “pedalling a bicycle uphill in the face of strong headwinds”.

“We’re not aware of any other sector where people who have first hand experience have less confidence than the people who don’t,” he said. “It’s clear something is fundamentally wrong since the CPS says it is vital that witnesses come forward. It’s terribly important that witnesses are welcomed and encouraged, but sadly the way the system operates makes this little more than an afterthought.”

Many witnesses to crimes find it difficult to contact the police about what they have seen and are further discouraged by the adversarial atmosphere of court hearings, at which they are given no support, he added.

The situation has worsened in the last decade as the risk of witness intimidation has been “misrepresented” and “stoked up”, Mr Dehn said. According to the MoJ report, intimidation occurs in less than 2 per cent of cases.

A Government spokesperson highlighted a statistic in the report which showed that almost two thirds of people who witnessed crime said they felt the criminal justice system gave victims and witnesses “the support they need”.

They added: “It is absolutely vital that witnesses of crime have confidence in the criminal justice system. We are increasing specialist services to make giving evidence in court less stressful. This Government has taken action to boost public confidence and trust in the police. It is encouraging that police recorded crime figures show that more victims than ever before are having the confidence to come forward.”