Crown court system intimidating and archaic - report


Victims and witnesses are being marginalised during crown court trials and proceedings are often "archaic" and "chaotic", a new study suggests.

The report by the Criminal Justice Alliance (CJA), a group of more than 90 campaign organisations, labelled the crown court system "structured mayhem" and said the time between reporting a crime and a trial "remains too long".

Justice Secretary Michael Gove has vowed to reform what he called a "dysfunctional" system and the Government recently launched a national information service for victims.

The 20-month CJA study was based on experiences of nearly 150 lawyers, victims, witnesses and defendants.

It recommended the use of wigs and gowns should be reviewed, as they created a "sense of other-worldliness", while police and court officers should keep victims better informed on the progress of their case.

One witness named Julia told the study: "It's just very frightening, very daunting when you walk in and you see all the chairs and the benches and everything set out and then you see all these people with their wigs on and the gowns. It's just very, very frightening."

Among its key findings, the report said: "Crown court proceedings and much of the interaction and language of the courtroom are elaborate, ritualised and - in many respects - archaic.

"Hearings, and particularly trials, are elaborate and formal, they are also often chaotic.

"Victims and witnesses are often frustrated that they have little 'voice' within the courtroom. Even on the stand, what they say is heavily circumscribed by the rules of evidence. And they are upset to discover that their own viewpoint is not represented in the courtroom by any lawyer.

"The undoubted drama of the crown court trial is one in which those who might be presumed to be key players - the witnesses, victims and defendants - are in fact sidelined and tend to play only minor roles."

Adjournments and delays caused "frustration, anxiety and inconvenience" to those involved and the average period from the time of the offence to completion of the case was 44 weeks in 2014, the report added.

Other recommendations include that defendants should only be seated in the dock for safety reasons and should normally sit next to their lawyer, as well as training in "plain English" for prosecutors and judges in order to avoid "incomprehensible" jargon.

Ben Summerskill, director of the CJA, said: "The Criminal Justice Alliance has added to these research findings its own recommendations for a range of agencies from the Ministry of Justice to the Courts and Tribunals Service. 

"If each rose to the challenges this report offers, not only would the experience of thousands of court users improve but public confidence in our whole criminal justice system might well be materially enhanced."