Book reviews: Intermediaries in the criminal justice system & Inside Crown Court

Intermediaries in the criminal justice system
Authors: Joyce Plotnikoff and Richard Woolfson
Publisher: Policy Press, University of Bristol
Date: June 2015
ISBN: ISBN-13: 978-1447326069
Price: £24.99

Inside Crown Court
Authors: Jessica Jacobson, Gillian Hunter and Amy Kirby
Publisher: Policy Press, University of Bristol
Date: January 2015
ISBN: ISBN-13: 978-1447317050
Price: £70

Long before vulnerable witnesses reached their overdue place towards the top of the political agenda, Dame Joyce Plotnikoff and Richard Woolfson were laying the necessary ground work. Their research, Measuring up? and In their own words, are the starting point in understanding good practice in how to question children. They have advised the judiciary, the rule-makers and the Bar. They are, to say the least, the natural authors for this book, Intermediaries in the criminal justice system. It is however not just a story of a successful innovation in the criminal justice system; it is a crucial guide to what is good practice in an area in which few barristers have received serious training or any training at all.

As the authors say at the start, “Most of their [intermediaries’] work is conducted out of public view”: assessing the communication needs of the witness, helping the officer to plan the ABE interview, writing a report upon which the ground rules of the person giving evidence will be based, and much more. It is only when they sit next to the witness in the live link room or witness box that the public sees them. It is also when they have the authority to intervene and to suggest to the judge what the problem is with the question.

Whether or not someone has taken part in an intermediary trial, there will be a huge amount to learn about intermediaries and what they do from this book. Carefully and logically set out from the time of the intermediary’s first involvement in the case, it goes through the process with admirable detail, copiously illustrated with real-life examples (both good and bad) of what really does go on.

It is all the more important to have a book like this because almost none of these functions is set out in statute. Nearly everything the intermediaries have contributed to the criminal justice system has been devised and developed as things have moved on, taking account of good practice and lessons learned. Practitioners may not realise how much they do not yet know but need to understand. Ground rules hearings began as a good idea; now they are obligatory and two chapters are devoted to how to get them right.

Space is given for the vexed question of vulnerable defendants. They fall outside the statutory scheme, the relevant provision not having been brought into effect, but non-registered intermediaries have been playing a crucial role since 2008 in helping vulnerable defendants meaningfully to take part in their own trials. Practitioners need to take note of this.

There is discussion about the future, including the rising number of referrals (requests) for service and the need to expand the numbers. And finally there are important words about advocacy. The criminal Bar rejected the recommendation of the Advocacy Training Council in 2011 that there should be ticketing for those dealing with vulnerable witnesses until, in September 2014, the Government said they would not be paid unless they did. But more fundamentally there needs to be an understanding that advocacy here is different.

For practitioners, judges and the public, it is an important book to read.

So is Inside Crown Court, the result of a 20-month qualitative study, involving observation of trials and interviews with a range of users, by three academics who also rely on past research. It is a marvellous insight for those who are willing to face up to what others think of them. The blunt and genuine views of bruised witnesses and less-than-engaged defendants can make for difficult reading.

Practitioners need to be patient while the authors set out the basics. They soon get to the meat of the matter. The chapter headings make clear what the authors are exploring: the “them and us” divide between court users and professionals, the “structured mayhem” of court – less obvious to barristers who live with this daily and simply have to get on with it – the reluctant but compliant way in which witnesses and defendants go along with a process which others have already devised, and finally the extent to which court users see what has gone on as legitimate. In total, it is, as the authors say, a means of managing “conflict between different parties, without necessarily providing for a definitive resolution of the conflict or the uncovering of how it came about”. Barristers’ language is an easy but important target. The authors observed a suspect charged with rape being asked about him talking to the woman on the bus. “It was as a prelude to sexual activity,” counsel put to him twice to the witness’s bafflement before snapping, “you spoke to her because you wanted to have sex with her.”

The conclusion is that despite everything, Crown Court trials earn a “reluctant legitimacy” from those who use it. Judges receive the high ratings for their fairness. What matters to victims, witnesses and defendants is fair decision making and respectful treatment. There is our work cut out for us.

Reviewer: David Wurtzel

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