There has been much talk in recent times of our criminal justice system being in turmoil, if not crisis. Much of this has been fuelled by the cuts made to legal aid provision: the courts are seeing ever greater numbers of defendants having to represent themselves at hearings. As well as this being perceived as a diminution of the rights of defendants to a fair trial and the disposal of effective justice it can also have a deleterious impact on witnesses who may be subjected to cross examination in court by those untrained and, often ill prepared defendants.
But there’s also something of a crisis in the family courts. “Crisis” was the word used by the previous Head of the Family Division, Sir James Munby, and whilst his successor Sir Andrew McFarlane has suggested that the word “crisis” may not be helpful, he too remains in no doubt that there are serious issues that need to be addressed. Family courts are continuing to see an increase in the volume of cases being heard – in the period April to June this year over sixty eight thousand cases started in family courts, a seven percent increase from a similar period last year. The number of domestic violence remedy order applications has risen over a similar timeframe.
It has sometimes been assumed that those appearing in criminal trials are, because of the nature of the trial process and the potential impact on witnesses, victims and, indeed defendants more in need of support than those attending civil cases or the family courts. But why should this be so? To appear at court, particularly if one is a victim of domestic abuse and in continuing need of protection and the need to feel safe is just as traumatic, potentially, as giving evidence in a criminal trial. And, as things stand, there is little by way of support available.
The Witness Service offers support before and during criminal proceedings to witnesses giving evidence at all criminal courts in England and Wales. This support has proved to be invaluable to thousands of such witnesses each year and offered them better opportunity, as a result, to give their best evidence when they appear. It is widely recognised throughout the system as being an invaluable and highly valued part of the overall provision of an effective and efficient justice system.
The support offered at criminal trials is long overdue in the family courts where those appearing, far too often unrepresented, are just as in need of support. Appearing at family court can be a hugely stressful experience and, if justice is to be be served, there is a real need, no, a demand, for support and help to navigate what is a difficult and often complex system to be made available to those with such needs.