The public's experiences of court: how victims, defendants and witnesses perceive and make sense of the criminal justice process

Lead Research Organisation: Birkbeck College
Department Name: Institute for Criminal Policy Research

Abstract

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Description The key finding of our study is that Crown Court proceedings are characterised by multiple and profound incongruities, but most victims, defendants and witnesses nevertheless accept the court process as legitimate. Our understanding of the nature of the process, and what it is like to appear in court as a member of the public, has developed around the following themes:

• We tend to think of the court as a place where 'what really happened' is established; and where, if it is established that a wrong has been done, the perpetrator receives a punishment commensurate with the wrong. In fact, the court process is about managing conflict between alleged wrongdoers and those allegedly wronged, and between their wildly different accounts of the same event.

• The management of conflict in court is undertaken through a ritualised public performance which involves an intermingling of highly incongruous elements. For example, the most intimate, personal and often sordid details of individuals' lives are publicly recounted in elaborate fashion; matters of the greatest seriousness are discussed alongside multiple trivialities; an emphasis on objective facts is undercut by a dependence on subjective interpretations; and grief and (black) humour coincide.

• Structured mayhem characterises the court process: equipment often fails to work; people don't turn up when they are supposed to paperwork goes missing or contains mistakes. And yet, despite the chaos, cases progress through their various stages and finally reach their conclusion.

• It might be assumed that victims, witnesses and defendants are the main players in any court case. In practice, however, these individuals play only minor, walk-on parts in proceedings, while the barristers and judge play the leading roles. The clearest divide in the courtroom is not between defendant and victim, but between the public and the professionals.

• Appearing in court can be terrifying, humiliating, upsetting or frustrating; and many aspects of the process can be difficult to understand. Despite this, court users usually conform with the expectations and social rules of the process - notwithstanding the extreme circumstances and hostilities that are at the heart of most court cases. The reluctant conformity of most court users reflects an implicit belief in the legitimacy of the court process.

• The perceived fairness of the verdict and/or sentence is often central to court users' sense of the overall legitimacy of the court process. This is particularly true of defendants, although their perceptions of legitimacy often appears more like resignation. For victims and witnesses, supportive treatment by criminal justice agencies can significantly contribute to their sense that the court process is legitimate; conversely, the experience of delays, inconvenience and disrespectful treatment undermines it.
Exploitation Route The key audiences for our work, in terms of societal impact, are the following:

• Victim Support and other services engaged in supporting victims and witnesses. As part of this aspect of our work, we intend in future to engage with Police and Crime Commissioners who now have responsibility for commissioning victims' services. Other organisations that have a remit beyond supporting victims and witnesses, but for whom this forms part of their role - such as Mencap, who work with victims and witnesses with learning disabilities - are also an important audience.
• Campaigning organisations and pressure groups with a focus on criminal justice and penal reform, such as the Prison Reform Trust, the Howard League for Penal Reform and Transform Justice. Of particular relevance to these bodies are our findings relating to the limitations to defendants' effective participation in court proceedings, and the wider issue of access to justice.
• Policy-makers - including parliamentarians (such as members of the penal reform and the victims and witnesses All-Party groups) and Ministry of Justice and Home Office officials (with whom we have routine contact through our range of research activities). We will continue to take advantage of all opportunities to feed into the continuing public and policy debates concerning and appropriate levels and types of provision for victims and witnesses of crime, the implications of legal aid reform for access to justice, and the legal rights afforded to the range of court users.
• Legal and criminal justice practitioners, including judges, lawyers, police, the Crown Prosecution Service, intermediaries and restorative justice practitioners. Our findings shed much light on the significant (positive and negative) implications for court users - and, ultimately, for justice - of the different ways in which individuals fulfil their respective professional roles.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Education,Other

URL https://policypress.wordpress.com/2015/01/30/what-really-goes-on-inside-crown-court/;
 
Description This was a qualitative project, involving observations of court, interviews with victims, witnesses and defendants who had attended court, and interviews with professionals. The research findings provide detailed insight into the nature of Crown Court processes; how these processes are perceived and experienced by court users; the extent to which court users regard the processes as legitimate; and the foundations of any such sense of legitimacy. As such, the project makes an important contribution to the relatively small body of ethnographic research on the criminal courts in England and Wales. In addressing the question of how the perceived legitimacy of the court process is sustained, the project contributes to the growing body of criminological research on 'procedural justice'. The findings support much of what the procedural justice theorists contend: for example, in highlighting that perceptions of legitimacy and trust in justice tend to reflect individuals' direct experiences of the criminal justice system; and that procedural aspects of these experiences (such as good treatment and fair decision-making) are important determinants of overall perceptions of the courts and wider system of justice. Where we depart from the procedural justice approach is in our assertion that outcomes of court proceedings matter decidedly more than process for many court users. We also pay particular attention to the ways in which some court users' - particularly, defendants' - compliance with the court process reflects their own sense of powerlessness and resignation. The project entailed extensive use of observation as a methodology, which provided an invaluable means of understanding the intricate details of the court process. The use of observational data alongside interview material, in presenting the research findings, allows a vivid picture to be drawn of what goes on in court and ensures that the theoretical and policy conclusions are fully grounded in empirical realities. Many issues addressed by this project have been much in the public eye, and the focus of policy dialogue, since the outset of the work. As the fieldwork got under way in mid-2011, the high profile trial of Milly Dowler's murderer brought attention to what was widely regarded as poor treatment of the victim's parents; since then, a succession of cases involving alleged sexual offences - particularly offences against children - have highlighted the difficulties and potential traumas faced by victims during the court process. Various policy initiatives aimed at improving provision for victims and witnesses are currently in progress. Against this backdrop, our research is timely and important. We have been able to feed into the public and policy debate by providing a detailed, nuanced analysis of victim and witness experiences of the Crown Court, based on their own direct accounts and our close observation of the court process. Our findings support wider concerns about lack of support for these court users, and have pointed to ways in which the gaps can be filled. We also found many positive aspects of the victim and witness experience, which we are seeking to highlight - in order that they can be further built upon, and to correct inaccurate and damaging representations of the court experience as uniformly grim and terrifying. In encompassing defendants' as well as other court users' experiences, our study also helps to widen policy debate beyond the question of how victims and witnesses can be better supported. Efforts to address this question are often predicated on the assumption that victims' rights exist in a 'zero sum' relationship to defendants' rights. A wider focus, instead, on how to enhance 'access to justice' for all (particularly in the context of legal aid reform) promises to be more productive, and recognises not only that victims and defendants make up overlapping groups, but also that the experiences of all court users have many common threads. The policy and practical relevance of our findings is demonstrated by the fact that they have been the basis of continuing collaboration with other organisations in the field - including Victim Support (which published a policy report based on some of the findings), the Advocacy Training Council (see, for example, two our briefings hosted on their website) and the Criminal Justice Alliance (which published and widely disseminated a Digest of our findings). There is also continuing interest in the research monograph on our findings, Inside Crown Court, which was published in January 2015 by Policy Press and launched at the Royal Courts of Justice at an event hosted by the Lord Chief Justice. A paperbook edition of the book is due for publication later in 2016.
First Year Of Impact 2013
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy,Education,Other
Impact Types Societal,Policy & public services

 
Description A response from the Institute for Criminal Policy Research to the Improving the Code of Practice for Victims of Crime Consultation
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a national consultation
Impact Contribution to consultation which resulted in production by the Ministry of Justice of the revised Code of Practice for Victims of Crime
URL https://consult.justice.gov.uk/digital-communications/code-victims-crime/results/improving-the-code-...
 
Description Impact on judicial training
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Impact Professor David Ormerod QC, Law Commissioner, reports that he cites our book Inside Crown Court when delivering training to members of the judiciary for the Judicial College, and strongly encourages judges to read the book. He believes that the book can help judges to understand, and be more responsive to, the difficulties faced by witnesses, defendants and victims when they attend court.
 
Description Influenced JUSTICE 'What is a trial?' working party
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a advisory committee
 
Description Written evidence from ICPR to the APPG Vulnerable Victims Inquiry
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a national consultation
 
Description Social policy research grant
Amount £190,000 (GBP)
Funding ID LAW/42560 
Organisation Nuffield Foundation 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2017 
End 10/2018
 
Title Crown Court research dataset 
Description The dataset produced by the research has been archived on the UK Data Archive. The dataset comprises the research instruments along with interview transcripts and write-ups of court observations. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2014 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact The data are available for use by other researchers. 
URL https://discover.ukdataservice.ac.uk/?q=jacobson#7186
 
Description ICPR and Victim Support collaboration 
Organisation Victim Support
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Co-publication with Victim Support of a policy briefing based on our research findings, Out of the Shadows, in 2013. We have also fed into other aspects of their work, including through the provision of material for use in their training of volunteers and in a briefing for their Chief Executive.
Collaborator Contribution Co-publication with ICPR of a policy briefing based on our research findings, Out of the Shadows, in 2013
Impact Policy briefing, Out of the Shadows. Continuing to work with Victim Support on the development of proposals for funding for further research on victims' and witnesses' experiences of the criminal justice system.
Start Year 2013
 
Description ICPR and the Advocacy Training Council 
Organisation Advocate's Gateway
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution At the recommendation of the Lord Chief Justice, ICPR discussed the research findings with the Advocacy Training Council; the outcome of these discussions was that ICPR produced two briefings which are hosted on the Resources section of The Advocate's Gateway website.
Collaborator Contribution Two ICPR briefings are hosted on the Resources section of The Advocate's Gateway website.
Impact J Jacobson, G Hunter & A Kirby (March 2014) 'Supporting Fair and Respectful Treatment of Witnesses', A research-based briefing from the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, Birbeck, University of London J Jacobson, G Hunter & A Kirby (March 2014) 'Supporting the Effective Participation of Defendants in Court Proceedings', A research-based briefing from the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, Birbeck, University of London
Start Year 2014
 
Description ICPR and the Criminal Justice Alliance 
Organisation Criminal Justice Alliance (CJA)
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution ICPR collaborated with the Criminal Justice Alliance to produce a briefing, Structured Mayhem (Jacobson, Hunter and Kirby), based on the research findings.
Collaborator Contribution The Criminal Justice Alliance published and disseminated the briefing.
Impact The main output was the published briefing, Structured Mayhem. Publication of the briefing received widespread media coverage, including on the BBC R4 Today Programme; BBC News Radio 2, Radio 3, Radio 4; Victoria Darbyshire Show BBC Radio 5 Live; BBC website; the Observer; large number of local papers. Additionally, ICPR has presented on Structured Mayhem to the Criminal Procedure Rules Committee at the Ministry of Justice on 11.12.15, and presented the key messages from the briefing to the Criminal Justice Alliance members' meeting and AGM on 19.1.16.
Start Year 2015
 
Description 'The experiences of witnesses at the Crown Court : emerging findings', presented at European Society of Criminology conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Participants in your research and patient groups
Results and Impact Question and answer session in panel

Unknown
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
 
Description Effective participation or passive acceptance: How can defendants participate more effectively in the court process?, paper at Howard League 'What is Justice?' Conference, Oxford, 1-2 October 2013 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Participants in your research and patient groups
Results and Impact Invitation to submit paper based on presentation to Howard League Working Paper series.

Paper published in Howard League Working Paper series
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
URL https://d19ylpo4aovc7m.cloudfront.net/fileadmin/howard_league/user/pdf/Research/What_is_Justice/HLWP...
 
Description Experiences of court 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Birkbeck Research Blog setting out the background to and key findings of the study

Unknown
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
URL http://blogs.bbk.ac.uk/research/2013/10/01/experiences-of-court/
 
Description Guilty pleas, sentencing and the elusive 'truth', presentation at European Society of Criminology conference, 2014 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Participants in your research and patient groups
Results and Impact Presentation was as part of a panel organised by the ESC Sentencing and Penal Decision-Making Working Group. As such, all three papers in the panel were closely related and provoked a lively question and answer session afterwards.

Recognition of shared research interests among the participants, chair and audience in the conference panel.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
 
Description Media coverage of Structured Mayhem report 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Extensive coverage in the national and local Press and on national radio

Evidence of interest in the research among research colleagues and wider public.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Presentation to Criminal Procedure Rules Committee 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Question and answer session with the Committee.

Committee noted relevance of findings to their work in developing criminal practice directions
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Victoria Derbyshire programme, BBC Radio 5 Live 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Radio programme discussing the Victim Support publication on victims' and witnesses' experiences of court, and the issues raised by the report. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03br04n

'We speak to victims, witnesses, and lawyers about a report saying people who come forward are being marginalised, put through needless stress and anxiety and not informed of their rights. Is the system failing the vulnerable?'

Unknown
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
URL http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03br04n
 
Description Witnesses tell of feeling abandoned and uninformed in criminal court cases 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Article in The Guardian discussing the Victim Support report on the study. http://www.theguardian.com/law/2013/sep/30/witnesses-abandoned-court-cases

Unknown
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
URL http://www.theguardian.com/law/2013/sep/30/witnesses-abandoned-court-cases