A force for change

Justice doesn’t come cheap. The Home Office’s £36m “No
Witness, No Justice” programme, which aims to re-establish victims
and witnesses at the heart of the criminal justice system, is
testament to that.

And, unfortunately, sometimes justice doesn’t come at all. You
might ha ve a witness but if they have learning difficulties they
might be considered “unreliable”.

But perhaps no longer: the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act
1999 and government guidance such as Achieving Best
have recognised that, with proper support, vulnerable
people can make good witnesses.

This proper support – so-called “special measures” – ranges from
recording video statements to having the assistance of an
intermediary. This is someone who can help you, should you need it,
give your statement if you have learning difficulties, physical
disabilities or mental health needs.

About five years ago the Metropolitan Police, which with more than
30,000 police officers in service is London’s largest employer,
began looking at how it could bring in the changes. A five-day
foundation training course in special measures was put together by
detective constables Steve Tilney and John Smith of the vulnerable
and intimidated witness team.

They soon realised the need for a more advanced version of the
course. “We were not training officers at all to deal with
traumatised children or people with complex needs,” says Tilney.
“It’s obvious that people with learning difficulties, for example,
will more than likely need a little more help making their
statements – so officers will need a little more training to do
that well. They can all do interviews. But can they do them well?
That’s the difference.”

Smith continues: “Too often people with learning difficulties are
put in the ‘too difficult’ category by officers; whereas they are
no different from you and me in that they are victims who have had
something happen to them, or are witnesses who have seen something.
From that point on we should still try to get to the same outcome –
the statement. We might have to do different things to get that
statement but we should still get it.”

The advanced course was set up with Voice UK, the national charity
for people with learning disabilities who have experienced crime or
abuse. The charity co-provides some training, using staff who have
learning difficulties. “We needed that external expertise,” says
Tilney. “On the foundation course we just had police officers
interviewing police officers. But we needed to see how officers
would interact in more real situations. Many officers may never
have come across anybody with a disability. Can they interact with
them as a person first, before even thinking about how to interview

As with most things, planning is all- important. Says Tilney: “We
keep drumming that into our students. The interview starts well
before you even meet your witness. You need to get the environment
sorted – making sure the room is set out right with the appropriate
refreshments, so you’re not offering them cola or orange juice if
they’re diabetic.”

But it’s not just training for the team: there’s also policy work
and, critically, drawing on their skills and experience, an advice
and guidance service. “We provide a 24-hour helpline in the sense
that we both have mobile phones. And everyone, it seems, has our
numbers,” says Smith.

“We do it voluntarily, but they do all seem to want to ring during
Coronation Street or while I’m out shopping,” Tilney
smiles. “But we’d much rather they phoned up and got a bit of
constructive advice. Quite often it’s a really simple thing that
you can answer in two seconds; and if you can help someone then
it’s great, because it’s a step further in the right

The Metropolitan Police – as with social work – is no stranger to
bad press. But with its vulnerable and intimidated witness team it
is certainly taking bold steps in the right direction. Indeed,
Annette Brooke, MP and chair of Voice UK’s all-party parliamentary
group, agrees: “This is very important work and it is good to see
the Metropolitan Police tackling this subject so

Lessons learned

  • First impressions are important: “If you don’t get it right at
    your first meeting with the victim or witness you could mess it up
    for everything that happens thereafter,” says Smith.
  • Watch what you wear. “You can’t expect to go into an interview
    suite in full uniform as a figure of authority and get some
    meaningful conversation with somebody,” adds Tilney. “All they will
    be thinking is that police arrest people and take them away.”
  • The commitment, skills and enthusiasm of the team are crucial.
    “It has been a privilege to work with police officers dedicated to
    ensuring that vulnerable people have access to justice,” comments
    Kathryn Stone, director of Voice UK.

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