Best evidence

Research has shown that of 284 suspected cases of alleged sexual
abuse against people with learning difficulties, only 63 (less than
a quarter) were investigated by police. And just two of these went
to court. And only one resulted in a conviction.1 So why
do so few cases go to court?

It has happened because either the vulnerable witness has been
unable to give their side of the story or, because of their
learning difficulty, has been considered “an unreliable witness”.
The Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 and guidance such
as Achieving Best Evidence2 have recognised
that with proper support vulnerable people can make good witnesses.
And, of course, with an everyday presence in the community, people
with learning difficulties are not necessarily only witnesses to
crimes against themselves.

However, there are concerns that resources and, in some areas,
commitment are not sufficient to effect changes. Not so in
Staffordshire. A partnership between social services and police has
resulted in a five-day vulnerable witness training course. “The
joint training with police is part of a broader training strategy
of the newly-formed Staffordshire adult protection committee,” says
Clive Cartman-Frost, vulnerable adults development officer,
Staffordshire social services.

To make the vulnerable witness training more real for participants
a whole day is spent meeting service users and carrying out video
interviews. PC Keith Pagett, Staffordshire police crime training
team, says: “Part of it for us is removing the mystique surrounding
police officers – people you normally come across in times of
stress or trouble.” And to change the way police perceive people
with learning difficulties. “We focus on their abilities not their
disabilities,” he adds.

Nichola Edge, manager of Lichfield Day Service for People with
Learning Difficulties, says:”It’s excellent for the users. It shows
they can be taken seriously, and listened to.”

Pagett says: “It’s understanding how we can get the best evidence
we can. It’s important, for example, not just to do an interview
but spend time to get a rapport with the person first.”

The big message from the course is the need to plan. To date 47
police officers and 12 social workers (three of whom work for
Stoke-on-Trent Council) have completed the course.

After an introductory presentation by Edge, participants then
attend a session, and use the time during lunch to get to know the
service users they are to interview. Video-taped interviews take
place in the afternoon after watching a tape of a theft.

Service user Mark Burbidge is a positive challenge for interviewing
because of his limited verbal communication. However, the way he
perceives the police now has changed: before, his sign for police
was to thrust his hands behind his back as if being handcuffed. Now
he uses the proper Makaton sign for police.

A meeting with six of the service users involved confirmed the
benefits. Not only do they enjoy the experience but they all now
see police as friendly and approachable. But, crucially, would they
now talk to police about something that was wrong? “You bet,” they

And early signs of the course’s usefulness are encouraging. A
police officer has called to the centre as part of an
investigation. “She came without uniform and in an unmarked car,”
recalls Edge. “She talked to me about what to do, about the user’s
communication skills. And the user’s keyworker went with the
officer to do the interview.” The social worker who arrived to join
them had also been on the training with the police officer. The
interview went very well.

Paula Burbidge, Mark’s mother, best sums up the success of the
scheme: “We’re absolutely delighted,” she says, “it’s a real step
forward that police are now seeking the views of people like

For more information call Clive Cartman-Frost on 01785 278530 or

Behind Closed Doors, Report from
Voice UK, Mencap & Respond, 2001. From 01332 202555

2 Home Office, Achieving Best Evidence in Criminal
Proceedings: Guidance for Vulnerable and Intimidated
, Including Children, Home Office, 2000


Scheme: A training scheme
Location: Staffordshire
Staffing: From within existing staff
Inspiration: Home Office’s Achieving Best Evidence
Cost: The five-day course costs £111 a person and is paid
by participants’ employers   

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