The Personal Support Unit: The beginnings of the concept 25 years ago

Last week I went to a small event to celebrate the work of the Personal Support Unit.  It started life in a very small way at the Royal Courts of Justice 16 years ago, when I was still a serving judge.  Six years ago it was deploying 200 volunteers.  Now it is based in 20 courts in 16 different cities, with a “workforce” of over 700 volunteers, and the number of its outlets, and the need for its services, are both steadily growing.  In my time as a  judge I helped them fight off efforts to close them down as part of a cost-cutting exercise, and I also helped them to press their case for better facilities for disabled litigants by introducing them to a disabled Lord Justice of Appeal who understood full well what they were so concerned about.

It all began when Diana Copisarrow, its founder, had seen what was then called the Victim Support Crown Court scheme in operation at the Old Bailey, and she saw no reason why a similar scheme should not be started for bewildered litigants in the civil courts.  Ten years earlier I had been involved in very nearly the first beginnings of the Crown Court scheme, at two of the first seven pilot courts, and this speech in 1992, which heralded the expansion of that scheme, recreates quite vividly just how novel was the idea of locating volunteer lay people in our courts, and how the quality of their work very rapidly disposed of all the objections to their presence from representatives of a very traditional court culture.

 

May 1992

THE VICTIM SUPPORT CROWN COURT PROJECT

An address to Hampshire Victim Support Volunteers at Winchester Crown Court on 9th May 1992

I was very pleased to be asked to speak to you today. It does not often happen that a High Court judge is given the opportunity to talk to the volunteers who play such an important role when people become the victims of crime, and it gives me an opportunity to say thank you and to say how much your services are appreciated by those of us who are at a different end of the criminal justice system from you. What goes on in the criminal courts frequently seems very forbidding and impersonal to those whom it has been your job to help during the days and weeks and months when they are recovering from the initial outrage of a violation of their property or their persons, usually by complete strangers, and I know that projects like the one we are discussing to-day are starting to provide valuable bridges between your efforts and mine.

I have been a High Court judge now for nearly four years with some responsibilities for criminal justice both at trial court and at appeal court level. I have never been lucky enough to sit at Winchester, but I have sat at two very different Crown Court Centres which formed part of the pilot Victim Support court project in seven Crown Courts. I think it was my experiences at those two centres which led to my invitation to come and talk to you to-day.

My first experience was at Newcastle in the spring of last year. While I was up there I was sitting away from the new Crown Court complex trying two murder trials at the Moot Hall which used to be the old Assize court. This is one of those beautiful old courts – it was built in Regency days – which are ideal for conducting a big criminal trial but are fairly hopeless in terms of ancillary provision for court staff and court users. There is room on court for about 80 members of the public up in the public galleries where they have a grandstand view of everything and cannot disturb the proceedings or frighten the jurors.

The jury and the press and the witnesses and the lawyers all have plenty of space, and the victim’s family can sit in the well of the court, away from the family and friends of the defendant.   And it is infinitely easier for a judge to conduct a difficult trial in a place like that.   Sadly,   modern courts   are   not built on that scale, and all too often the family of the victim and the family of the defendant have to sit far too close to each other in the pathetically small space which is provided for the public in the courtroom.

What is missing, however, in the old courts, like the courts which used to be in the Great Hall here in Winchester, are adequate facilities outside the courtroom itself: proper waiting areas or canteen facilities or conference rooms, let alone enough space to   accommodate probation staff or victim support volunteers or all the others who may have important business to do at the Crown Court.   Those who designed such courts, like those who designed criminal trial procedures, concentrated on the needs of the judge and the lawyers and the jury inside the court itself and did not pay enough attention to the needs of those who willingly or unwillingly play a vital role in the transaction of the courts’ business – particularly the parties to the case and their families.   The fact that there is room at modern courts for the kind of project which we are discussing to-day marks a marvellous step forward in court design. It would have been unthinkable in most of the courts which I visited when I started to practise as a barrister thirty years ago.

One day during my final week at Newcastle I told my murder jury that they need not come to court till 12 noon the following day.   The reason was that   because I was the senior judge who happened to be sitting at Newcastle I had been invited to welcome the Royal Patron of Victim Support, the Princess   Royal, on her visit to the new Crown Court complex which  had  recently opened on the Quayside nearby on the banks of the Tyne.

There were two features of that visit which I particularly remember. The first was a presentation in one of the larger courts, when the Princess and I sat on the Bench and all the local circuit judges crammed into the jury box in their wigs and gowns and all , and the rest of the courtroom was packed with people.  Those who were responsible for Victim Support in the North-East, at regional level and at area level and at local level in the Crown Court itself, each described to us the work they were doing and the way in which the Newcastle Crown Court project was enabling the work of Victim Support to be continued into the Crown Court building itself.

And the second was the hour spent in the large waiting area overlooking the Tyne when the Princess talked in turn to groups of victims, young and old, who had come to give evidence at court while the project was operating , to volunteer helpers and to Victim Support organisers. She also visited the Victim Support office which was very conveniently placed in a room immediately off that waiting area.

At the end of all this we were supposed to have a demonstration of the new Videolink facilities which had just been installed at the court for child witnesses, but the programme overran and there was not time for that. However, just before she left the Princess was able to visit the room in a quite different part of the Court complex, with a separate entrance, which had been set aside as a waiting area for child witnesses and their parents and which had been attractively furnished with suitable wallpaper and carpets and furnishings and equipped with appropriate books and a television set for the waiting period.

This limited exposure to the court project taught me how much the work of Victim Support can be enhanced if it is brought into the court building itself, and how vital it is that the local police, crown prosecutors and Crown Court staff are all convinced of the value of the project to the work they were doing, as they obviously were at Newcastle, and are determined to co-operate to make it a success.

My next exposure to the Victim Support Court Project was a rather different one. It happened when I was sitting at the Preston Crown Court three months later. In Preston there are six courtrooms for the Crown Court in two Victorian court buildings. These are .separated from each other by the very large Town Hall building , although they are linked by an underground passage at the level of the cells below the courts which I visited while I was there.

When I got to Preston I was warned by the Courts Administrator not to expect what I had seen at Newcastle. For one reason or another the same level of co-operation had not yet been achieved, and what was worse was that the Victim Support staff and volunteers had no office or visible base at the court. They were doing the best they could in terms of getting into contact with people by coming  up to them in waiting areas and sometimes pinching someone else’s office if they wanted to find somewhere for a victim to wait away  from the defendant or his family and friends.

The Courts Administrator and the Chief Clerk of the Crown Court were as sure as I was of the difference it would make to the success of the project if it could be found, somehow or other, a visible presence in one or other of the court buildings. While I was there, the local organisers invited my wife and myself to visit them one lunchtime at their offices in the town, and they told us something of what they thought they had already achieved and also what they thought the project was capable of achieving, given proper working conditions.  My wife suggested that they should get a caravan and park it in the main Town Square outside the court building if nobody could think of anything better, but for some reason or other this wasn’t thought a very good idea.

I was to hear a few months later that soon after our visit they had been allowed to instal an information desk at a focal point in one of the court buildings, with the shared use of an adjoining room on an official basis. They were hopeful, too, that they would be allowed to install an information desk in the other building as well.   I was also told this:

“This has transformed the project. For the first time the initial contact is made by victims rather than volunteers ­ – psychologically more comfortable for both – and in large numbers. Simple information about, for example, average waiting times or which court to attend, can often break the ice and lead to more sustained support when required. The 23 volunteers (two per day) can look forward to a genuinely productive day at court,   instead of the former  patchy   hit-and-miss business.

In the last three months we have arranged with all the magistrates’ clerks in Lancashire to enclose with the Witness Order a letter telling witnesses of the service we offer and inviting them to contact us if they wish. A steady trickle of people do so, and we can show them round the court in advance of their case if they wish, as well as giving information.

We are now looking at ways of improving the service further, and in particular seeing whether a way can be found to contact people a week or two before their case.

Our work seems to be accepted and respected at court, and our collation of information from the Crown Prosecution Service and court officials, which enables us to know who is to give evidence in which court , even when last minute switches occur from one court to another, leads on occasions to professionals flying d own the corridor to ask our volunteers ‘Where am I supposed to be?’ in the Kafka style! And of course ushers and others on hand can hand on distressed witnesses to our volunteers, freeing them for other work. So we can give something in return for the extra work our activities have created.

It is all very exciting and positive”.

I have quoted all this to show you what the project can achieve and what it has already achieve elsewhere in less than ideal conditions.   There are of course very important things which volunteers must understand and respect if they take part in court projects like this, and a proper training course for court volunteers is absolutely essential.  I was very pleased to read in the research report on the pilot project that a lot of the worries which some people had had before the volunteers came to  court, which included worries that juries might have to be discharged because of mistakes made by volunteers misunderstanding their role, were said to have been dispelled everywhere by the very professional way in which the volunteers were seen to have been conducting themselves. I am sure that this will also be the case in Hampshire.

Volunteers must always remember that however much the courts are made more user-friendly – a development which I and, I know, many other judges welcome – they are still engaged in a very serious, very difficult business.   Not all victims or alleged victims of crime always tell the truth, or the whole truth, or nothing but the truth; they are often, for understandable reasons, shaky in their identification evidence; or they are confused when they try to recall the precise sequence of events which led up to the incident of which they are giving evidence, which may prove to be important at a trial. Rigorous testing of their evidence by defence counsel is therefore always likely to be on the cards, and that is never likely to be a relaxing experience for anyone.

For a trial to be fair and to be seen to be fair it is vital that as soon as any witness enters the courtroom, he or she is treated with equal politeness and courtesy by the judge, whether they come to the witness-box from a waiting area outside or from a Victim Support office or from the dock.   The whole purpose of a criminal trial is for the prosecution to try to prove so that the jury feel sure that the defendant has committed the offence which is charged against him; and, as I have said, if this issue is contested the experience for any witness whose evidence is challenged to be subjected to examination-in-chief and cross-examination and re-examination by barristers in a strange courtroom peopled by strangers is bound to be an unnerving one. Page 16 of the researchers’ report on the Victim Support court project says this:

“Feelings  reported while giving evidence were mostly negative, with less than 10% indicating ‘calmness ‘ or ‘relief’ compared with 47% feeling ‘nervous, intimidated,      worried,  frightened or upset’.   A   similar  proportion (46%) felt that giving   evidence had been worse than expected (34% a lot worse) while only 26% found giving evidence better than they expected.”.

This illustrates how valuable it is to have arrangements whereby the witness can know that there is a friend at court (who is not part of the court hierarchy) who knows what can be done to ensure that he or she does not have to wait, sometimes alone, in the same waiting area as the defendant (if he is on bail) or his family and friends – a constant source of worry – and to whom they can communicate their anxieties or worries about the court process without embarrassment.

If any of you wonder whether it is worth your while to give up your time to help the Victim Support project in court, the answer in the research report and from all the experience I have had of the project so far is a resounding “yes”.   Things which victims and witnesses most appreciated about the pilot project was that it provided somebody to answer their queries; somebody to wait with them; a sanctuary in which to wait; the opportunity to see round the court in advance; somebody to explain court procedures; somebody to provide reassurance; and finally, somebody to put them in touch with other agencies if they needed this.   What the interviews with victims showed was that what they needed was not great expertise in counselling or in calming distressed people but simply the fact that someone was there to stay with them at court, for company and reassurance.

The importance of all this can hardly be overstated.   A lot of earlier research studies had reported that many victims and other witnesses felt greatly inconvenienced and let d own by the whole experience of coming to court.   They often had to re-live painful memories. They loathed having to meet the alleged offender, and they felt frustrated when they were denied the opportunity to express their feelings in the witness-box as they would like to have done. Just under 60% of those who were interviewed during the pilot project said that their main feelings on arrival at court were those of nervousness, worry, fright and upset.   Nearly half of them had to wait more than four hours before being called to give evidence, and they had been given little advance warning that this might happen.   It is therefore hardly surprising that the existence of a friendly supporting lay presence in the court building is most enormously appreciated.

I have little doubt that as these projects multiply, as multiply they must, they are going to lead to other valuable changes being made in court procedures which will make the life of the witness at court less stressful and intimidating. The presence of a squad of intelligent volunteers at court each day cannot but lead to sensible suggestions being made to improve things. I would suspect that although some of them cannot be accommodated, a lot of them will be, at not much expense, without harming the processes of justice. A relaxed witness is much more likely to be a good witness.

Tim Gustafson will now tell you something about the nuts and bolts of the project. I will end by saying how delighted I am that a court project is now getting under way at Winchester, and how much I look forward to seeing it up and running when I am lucky enough one day to return to sit this Crown Court as a judge for the first time.

 

 

Alas, I was never lucky enough to sit at Winchester.  But I was lucky enough to be able to watch this seedling grow up into the massive oak-tree which is one of the best innovations in our criminal and civil courts over the last 25 years, a time when so much else has deteriorated in quality due to government parsimony.

 

 

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