Witnesses whose trials are on hold due to lockdown measures still need support

4 June, 2020

With the courts closed for months due to the coronavirus lockdown measures, Cathie writes about the impact on witnesses waiting for their trials and the difference volunteers can make at this challenging time.

I volunteer with the Witness Service side of Victim Support Scotland, based at Hamilton Sheriff Court. As a retired Law Lecturer, I have worked in the legal environment since I was 18, so law has always been part of my life. I realised how much I missed the law environment when I was supporting my daughter who was a witness in a trial at the Sheriff court. I spoke to a Victim Support Scotland staff member while at the court, completed a form to volunteer and the rest is history. That was six and a half years ago.

I enjoy volunteering because there is always someone out there who needs support from volunteers like myself. The people who really need our support are always grateful and very appreciative of our help. It is very humbling, and sometimes horrifying, to listen to some of their stories and this is what gives me the inspiration to continue to work as a volunteer. I would recommend volunteering to anyone because you can really help people who need it.

Since the courts are presently closed, I am volunteering at home to provide support over the phone so I can help witnesses who were due to come to court. One of the staff members at Hamilton Witness Service sends a list of witnesses for me to contact and I phone them in relation to the trial in which they will be giving evidence. A lot of the phone calls that I make are the first contact VSS has with a witness so I introduce myself, explain my role within Victim Support Scotland, and talk about court procedures and what will happen on the day of their trial. We’re all finding it frustrating that trials are suspended and right now we can’t give witnesses a date when the courts are going to be up and running again.

Supporting people over the phone has its challenges, but sometimes, I get a real sense that the call I have just made has taken a load off a witness’ shoulders, even if I’m only telling them procedures. Lots of witnesses, no matter their gender or background, are actually terrified of going to court and think they will be alone the whole time. They are elated to find out that we can support them from when they arrive in the court until they have given their evidence.

During the coronavirus lockdown, people are worried about being stuck at home and not being able to meet up with loved ones. They are deprived of their support network to a certain extent, which only adds to the worries of people waiting for their trials. I have telephoned many witnesses who were only too glad to have received a phone call from me at this challenging time.

I contacted a witness last week who had never been in a court and didn’t know what to expect. She was quite anxious as her trial date was approaching – if the courts opened. I explained what would happen when she came to court, the different procedures, and the assistance available, such as an in-court supporter and a screen to block her view of the accused while she was giving evidence.

I also explained to her that a supporter would be with when she was at court and she could come in for a court familiarisation visit beforehand so we could show her the courtroom. She was so delighted that she would not have to go through the trial on her own that she must have thanked me numerous times. She said she was so glad I had phoned because she was becoming more anxious on a daily basis worrying about the case and her imagination was running away with her.

Even if we make a difference to just one person, it is always worthwhile supporting people affected by crime. During the lockdown measures, when we can’t have face to face contact with witnesses, I think it is actually more important to allay their fears and to let them know there is always someone there to help them. This, on its own, is comfort to many witnesses. Victim Support Scotland is helping many people to bring their cases to court simply by just supporting them and giving them the strength to carry it through.