System of intermediaries helping to give evidence is struggling to cope, says commissioner
Hundreds of the most vulnerable victims of crime are being prevented from testifying against their attackers because of a shortage of experts to help them give evidence, the victims’ commissioner warns in a report on Wednesday.
Helen Newlove is calling for extra support and funding for registered intermediaries (RIs) who give a voice in court to those, such as the very young or adults with learning difficulties, who have problems communicating.
Usually speech therapists, psychologists, teachers or other skilled professionals, RIs sit in courts, video-recording sessions or at police interviews alongside victims and witnesses to enable them to deliver coherent and accurate evidence.
Testimony is sometimes given by pointing at dolls or explaining by gestures what happened. There are only 183 RIs in England and Wales on a register administered by the National Crime Agency. Far fewer are active: many complain of late pay and poor working conditions.
In two extraordinary cases last year, RIs helped a two-year-old girl become the youngest person ever to testify in a British court and a former chorister, rendered immobile by motor neurone disease, was enabled to give evidence from his hospice bed using eye-tracking technology which allowed him to speak via a computer. Both cases, like many involving RIs, were sex offences.
Very young children and mentally disabled people are often targeted by offenders because they believe, wrongly, that their victims will be unable to report the abuse.
“The RI system is straining under pressure as it struggles to cope,” Lady Newlove said. “My biggest concern is you cannot expect a young child with a short memory span to wait four long weeks and still be able to recall their evidence reliably. We need a fast-track matching service for child victims.
“There are on average 250 cases every year where the police and crown prosecutors make RI requests that cannot be matched – in other words, 250 victims who are being restricted in their access to justice. This needs to be addressed urgently.”
A survey of 122 working RIs for the report, A Voice for the Voiceless, found a fourfold increase in the number of requests for assistance over recent years despite there being no increase in the number of RIs recruited.
Newlove’s first husband, Garry, was attacked by a teenage gang in August 2007, dying of his injuries two days later. Her experience afterwards in court, where her young children had to give evidence unsupported, she said, persuaded her of the need for RIs.
“If these recommendations are not acted on it will be letting the most vulnerable victims down,” she added. Access to an RI is currently a “postcode lottery”, she said.
Two RIs backed the report’s recommendations. Nicola Lewis, who used to be a solicitor before she became an RI, said: “I worked once with a child who was too nervous to speak. She would whisper into my ear the answer [to lawyers’ cross-examination questions]. I would repeat them out loud to the court.”
Esther Rumble, a speech and language therapist who is also an RI, said: “Some children will have quite limited language. Sometimes it’s like being a referee, listening carefully to each question. You may have to ask the QC, for example, to break a question down [so it can be understood].”
The commissioner is calling for a national RI service to be established and an urgent recruitment drive. Newlove said she had spoken to the new justice secretary, David Gauke, on his first day in office but was still waiting for the victims bill repeatedly promised by the government.
“When you deprive victims of the support of a RI, you rob them of the opportunity to give their best evidence,” Newlove said. “Their evidence is likely to be less effective at trial and can impede their ability to secure a conviction.”