ATTENDING court as a victim of crime or witness to a crime can be a daunting prospect.
Possibly having to face the defendant in the courtroom, worrying about cross-examinations, legal processes and the courtroom itself, with its different sections and legal teams, can all add to the stress of the occasion.
When they arrive at court, many people having to appear in this capacity are extremely anxious and distressed. To help them, every year up to 1500 victims of crime and witnesses are given support by volunteers from Bradford's Witness Service run by Victim Support.
There are currently 22 volunteers working between Bradford Crown Court and Bradford Magistrates' Court, offering help and reassurance.
Based at Bradford Magistrates' Court, Julie Sweeney had now been with the witness support service for more than ten years, attending one, sometimes two days a week. “A large proportion of witnesses come to us. One person I saw recently was shaking and did not think she could go through with it. We reassure people and tell them how soon it will be over. We talk to them to calm them down.”
Mainly, volunteers enter court before the trial date, but they are able to accompany victims of crime and witnesses into court during their case if asked. “I recently had a domestic violence matter and she was so nervous, then the case was adjourned and she had to come back a second time,” says Julie, 54, of Clayton. “I offered to go into court with her, so that she could see and get comfort from a familiar face. I went during the trial and was there when the sentence was passed.”
The woman was also supported by the charity Bradford Staying, which helps women and children affected by domestic violence. Put, adds Julie. “Some people give evidence over a video link, and we can accompany them in the link room.”
Like other members of the service, Julie, who has a background in the court service, having worked at both in a clerical capacity at the crown and county court, has also helped police officers. “I've accompanied young officers who are going to court to give evidence for the first time.”
She adds:“When I go home I feel as if I have really been of use."Volunteers talk witnesses through the whole procedure, keeping them calm, and taking them to quiet places to wait before they have to appear.
People's main concerns centre around fear of the unknown, seeing the accused, who, in some cases, they may not have seen for years. They also worry about speaking in public,and being called a liar. They also have concerns about possible reprisals.
Where do I stand, where will the accused be, who can sit in the public gallery and how long will I be here are among the most commonly asked questions.
Jan Cartwright, 68, joined the service two years ago, and helps at both crown and magistrates court. The former secretary from Laycock, who later ran her own tea room and gift shop, wanted to channel her energies into something “worthwhile” after retiring.
“When you have to appear in court it is the unknown that worries people," she says. "If someone has never been into court before, with magistrates, barristers and a judge, it can be quite an intimidating environment. We can help to allay their fears.”
Volunteers can accompany witnesses on pre-court visits. “As well as showing them where they will stand and where everyone else will be, we give advice such as to stand straight and not put their hands in their pockets.” adds Jan.
Breda Foley, service delivery manager for the witness service at Bradford Magistrates' Court, says: “People worry about speaking - they are nervous about getting upset or forgetting something.”
Volunteers need to have certain qualities. “They need to be calm and empathetic, and confident but not pushy'" adds Breda.
Those who need further support can be referred to Victim Support, which is based in Shipley.
Kath Wilson, service delivery manager at Bradford Crown Court, says the service provides comfort. "We offer a safe haven in a fast-paced environment which could overwhelm people. It is comforting to have someone there who is not involved, not a member of the police, Crown Prosecution Service. Our sole aim is to look after people and guide them through the process."
Adds Jan: “You feel you have really helped people. They come up and shake your hand - it is so rewarding.”
For further information, call (01274) 732065 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.