It is very likely, if you write crime stories, that at some point you will write about a vulnerable member of the public in your list of characters. Perhaps this is a child who has witnessed a crime, maybe the victim is a person living with a disability.
The police officers who conduct interviews undergo extensive training to ensure that vulnerable witnesses are cared for correctly. They ensure that the witness themselves feel safe to give their account, but also try to maximise the amount of information to be gleaned from such a person.
Writers cannot undergo the same training, so what do we need to know about vulnerable witnesses?
Who Are the ‘Vulnerable Witnesses’?
Someone described as a vulnerable witness is often, but not always, young. They will be perhaps 17 years old and younger.
They may be a victim of a sexual offence, someone whose evidence could be diminished by reason of mental disorder, impairment of intelligence or social functioning. They may have a physical disability or disorder or communication difficulties.
Persistently targeted victims may also fall under the category of ‘vulnerable’.
We might also see this person described as an ‘intimidated witness’ where the offence is sexual in nature, the victim elderly or frail or victims of racially-motivated crimes. An intimidated witness may more generally refer to a person whose quality of evidence may be diminished by reason of fear or distress.
Identifying a Vulnerable Witness
Early on, a risk assessment could be carried out with a witness to assess the extent to which they may be described as vulnerable or intimidated. This could range from the witness having a fear of going to court, to the most extreme cases where a witnesses’ life is at risk. The services provided to the witness can be tailored based on the category they fit into, to help them feel more willing to give evidence.
This initial assessment might be completed by a speech therapist, clinical psychologist or a psychiatrist.
Interviewing a Vulnerable Witness
The initial contact between the detectives on a case and a vulnerable witness is crucial to get right, as it sets a precedent for the witness about the way the criminal justice system works.
The initial meeting with the witness is the most important, and may be described as the ‘rapport phase’. During this first contact, an officer will be looking to build a relationship of trust with the witness rather than focussing on gaining details about the case; the case may not even be mentioned for some time until the officer can be sure a good relationship has been reached.
Rapport will be built perhaps by conducting the meetings in an informal setting rather than an interview room, and possibly in a place the witness is familiar with such as their home. The interviewer might also offer other arrangements such as revisiting a scene.
The officer will ensure there are lots of breaks, and ‘free narrative recall’ will be the goal; conversation is natural and led by the witness.
The victim or witness may have specific wishes about who they are interviewed by in terms of age, gender or ethnicity and where possible officers will try to meet these requirements.
From a writing viewpoint, you can’t write an interview with a child in the same way as you would an adult, at least not in modern-day fiction; children’s reasoning and communication skills are not as developed as an adults and so questioning will have to be carefully planned by the officers.
Children understand time very differently to adults. For example, young children up to the age of six may refer to any event in the past as having happened ‘yesterday’. Asking a child ‘when’ type questions, such as ‘when did Mummy leave the house?’ are therefore confusing.
Instead, ‘what’ and ‘where’ type questions will make more sense, e.g. ‘what clothes were you wearing?’ and ‘where was your mummy?’
Kids can struggle to describe people reliably, particularly in terms of height, size and when comparing between different people. This may be in part because people are better at remembering ‘same-age faces’ as opposed to those younger or older than themselves (Bartlett and Leslie ’86). Given that most suspects are not children, it makes sense then that kids may struggle to identify a middle-aged suspect, for example.
Children are also highly suggestible, especially to misleading information. Research by Ceci and Bruck ’93 found that many factors influence a child’s ability to give eyewitness testimony including peer pressure, wanting to impress authority figures and overactive imaginations.
Read more: 10 Factors Affecting Eyewitness Testimony
Witnesses with Learning Disabilities
There are a fair few factors to consider when interviewing a witness with learning disabilities, which may affect the reliability or understanding of the evidence given. These could include any of the following:
- Poor memory capacity
- Poorer understanding of legal rights
- Poorer understanding of questions and implications of answers
- Heightened suggestibility and compliance
- Fabricated memories
- Distorted perceptions of the consequences of one’s answers and behaviour
At any time the Senior Investigating Officer (SIO) may call upon the services of an interview adviser to ensure they get the most from the meeting with the witness.
Vulnerable Witnesses Giving Evidence
There is a huge amount of support available for witnesses giving evidence who we might deem as vulnerable, whether this be in the form of social support before, during and after giving evidence, or by way of the special measures which can be put in place during the trial. In the UK these measures are offered as part of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act (YJCE Act) 1999.
- Evidence may be given via a tv link. This means a witness can sit in a room elsewhere and give evidence from there, though both witness and offender will still be able to see each other.
- Witnesses can pre-record their evidence before the trial, to be shown via a tv screen on the day. This way the witness never has to come into contact with the offender.
- Screens can be used to block off the witness box so the offender cannot be seen.
- When in Crown Court, wigs and gowns worn by a judge for example, can be removed so that the setting seems less formal, perhaps for younger witnesses.
- Evidence can also be given ‘in private’, meaning that members of the public are not allowed in the courtroom.
- Communication aids can be used in court to help a witness or victim feel more at ease or to help them communicate their statement more easily. These include computers, voice synthesisers, toys, symbol boards, books and alphabet boards.
- An intermediary can be used to interview the witness who understands how best to ask questions of the witness according to their needs.
Throughout a case the witness has access to support services. This may be in the form of having a friend or relative present during interviews, getting pre-trial support or someone to help them through the court appearances.
This could mean deploying a Family Liaison Officer or specialist Domestic Violence Officer or helping the witness access victim support initiatives, such as these:
Should a Person Give Evidence?
It is not always the case that a witness will be suitable for giving evidence at all. According to Section 53, Subsection 3 of the YJCE Act 99:
a person is not competent to give evidence in criminal proceedings if it appears to the court that he is not a person who is able to:
Understand questions put to him as a witness, and
Give answers to them, which can be understood
Over to you
Hopefully this has been a useful overview of the term ‘vulnerable witness’. Please let me know if you have written this kind of witness as a character and what you found easy or difficult!