The Ministry of Justice today announced a new partner to support witnesses in criminal trials – but admitted there will be no extra money to fund the service.
The government will pay £24m over two years to Citizens Advice to offer practical advice and emotional support for people giving evidence in criminal trials.
The organisation will take over the role currently played by charity Victim Support, which created its courts-based witness service 25 years ago and last year helped almost 200,000 witnesses. It will continue this service until next April.
But an MoJ spokeswoman admitted that Victim Support is currently paid £12m a year to run the service – exactly the same as Citizens Advice will receive.
Among the new initiatives will be home visits to vulnerable witnesses and victims before a trial and at remote video-link locations. The government also wants improvements in how witnesses are greeted, how court procedures are explained and progress reports on the trial.
The support offered to witnesses and victims has been a political battleground ever since Labour announced last December plans for a 'victims’ law' to replace the existing code of conduct.
In the House of Commons on Tuesday, shadow justice minister Dan Jarvis (pictured) suggested that witnesses go through such a traumatic experience it leaves them ‘feeling like they are on trial themselves’.
Justice minister Mike Penning said the new funding will go towards improving victims’ experience in court and ensuring help is there when needed.
‘Witnesses play a crucial role in our courts but without the right support and information it can be an intimidating process,’ he said. ‘It is vital that people with important evidence know what to expect before entering the courtroom, and it is right that this money goes towards improving their experience and ensuring help is in place.’
This is the first time funding for helping witnesses has been open to competition and Citizens Advice has been commissioned to provide the service from April 2015 to March 2017, with the option of a further year.
Its chief executive Gillian Guy said: ‘The right support can turn a daunting situation into an empowering one. For 75 years Citizens Advice has equipped people with the skills and confidence they need to get through difficult situations.’