Structured Mayhem: Personal experiences of the Crown Court

This post was contributed by researchers Jessica Jacobson, Gillian Hunter and Amy Kirby from the Institute for Criminal Policy Research (ICPR), School of Law at Birkbeck discuss a recent collaboration with the Criminal Justice Alliance an organisation which works in partnership with 90 member organisations to promote better outcomes across the criminal justice pathway.

Structured-Mayhem-webStructured mayhem: Personal experiences of the Crown Court, is a digest of our research into what it is like to attend Crown Court as a victim, witness or defendant published in full earlier this year as Inside Crown Court (Policy Press).

The Digest describes the elaborate, ritualised and in many respects archaic nature of proceedings in the Crown Court, highlighting how these proceedings can be bewildering and alienating for victims, witnesses and defendants alike. The title of the Digest, Structured Mayhem, conveys the often chaotic nature of the criminal trial and other court hearings, and the inherent challenges involved in seeing a case through to completion. Trials often have a large cast of characters, which must be brought together along with vast documentation and a range of evidence in various forms including video or audio recordings and physical artefacts. Things often go wrong, and delays and adjournments are commonplace.

Participating in the court process

Court proceedings are highly theatrical; but these are dramas within which the legal professionals – particularly the prosecution and defence counsel – playing the starring roles, while the victims, witnesses and defendants having only minor parts. And if victims and witnesses occupy a walk-on role in proceedings, defendants could be said to take on the part of ‘ever-present extras’. Rather than being the focus of events, they often appear to be the least important characters at court: almost incidental to the proceedings that, in fact, largely revolve around them. One manifestation of this paradoxically central but marginal status in court is a marked passivity on the part of many defendants towards being in court. This passivity, which was frequently expressed in our research interviews, runs counter to the widely established principle in law that, in order to exercise fully their right to a fair trial, defendants should be able to participate effectively in the court process.

We have blogged previously about the often stressful and disaffecting experiences of Crown Court reported by victims and witnesses and also about the range of initiatives that have been introduced over recent years to help them at court. Examples include the introduction of the Witness Service, whose volunteers provide support to those giving evidence, and the ‘special measures’ made available for vulnerable or intimidated witnesses, including being permitted to give evidence from behind a screen or via a videolink. Provision for vulnerable defendants is less extensive than that for vulnerable witnesses, but it is increasingly accepted that their ‘effective participation’ in the court process often depends on adequate support and practical adaptations.

What needs to be done to improve participation?

Structured Mayhem includes a series of recommendations from the Criminal Justice Alliance for the Ministry of Justice, HM Courts and Tribunals Service and other agencies, which are aimed at improving the experience of all court users and enhancing the public’s confidence in the criminal justice system.

The recommendations include ensuring equivalence of provision of ‘special measures’ across all groups of court users; promoting the use of ‘plain English’ by professionals at court, and explanation of technical terms, to aid victims’, witnesses’ and defendants’ understanding of what is going on; greater use of restorative justice approaches to further offenders’ opportunities to take responsibility for their offending behaviour and to engage with the court process; and use of the dock during court hearings – which isolates defendants and further alienates them from proceedings – on a discretionary basis only, where the judge deems it necessary for reasons of safety.

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