Ever since the early 1990s, when the heinous murder of James Bulger was heard in Preston Crown Court, the English judicial system has slowly realised that there are plenty of occasions when certain defendants and trial witnesses need to be protected from the hugely intimidating environment of a courtroom.
Whilst the entire country was in uproar back in 1993 when the 10-year-old Jon Venables and Robert Thompson were tried for the murder of James Bulger, in their determination and haste to bring these boys to justice at that time, our country’s legal system broke just about every rule in the book. This was to the extent that the English legal system was later criticised severely by the European Court of Human Rights in 1999 for failing to give Thompson and Venables a fair trial.
This was all down to the fact that Thompson and Venables were both forced to face an adult trial at the age of 10. They were subjected to all of the usual courtroom pomp and ceremony – which many people are known to find extremely intimidating – and there was certainly no hint of the option to present their defence by way of video link to the court.
By the end of the 1990s, the option to present evidence via video links to the court was encouraged hugely through the implementation of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 (YJCEA). This statute established a good number of categories of witnesses for whom video link facilities would be made available, and the number of people choosing to rely on this type of evidence presentation continues to grow steadily to this day.
The Act covers the following classifications of witnesses:
- People who are considered vulnerable: suffering from a mental illness as defined in the Mental Health Act 1983; considered to have a significant impairment of intelligence or social functioning; having certain physical disabilities etc.
- All children under the age of 18 now have an immediate right to rely on video link facilities.
- Witnesses that are in danger or fear of intimidation.
- People involved in the most serious crimes.
- Victims of sexual assault are automatically eligible to rely on this type of facility to present their evidence to the court.
The Act defines this type of witness presentation as being ‘special measures’ and sets out a number of ways in which anonymity can be better protected and intimidation can be eradicated. This could be anything from a screen for the witness to hide behind, to the possibility to pre-record the witness statement so that he or she does not have to attend the court on the same day as the defendant.
It is not just the intimidation of the defendant that this statute seeks to eliminate; as we have already touched on above, the overall pomp and ceremony and dress of the lawyers in court is known to be extremely disturbing for many people. The more vulnerable people in our society, as identified by the Act above, are most likely to have problems dealing with these issues, and this is another reason why the YJCEA was so desperately required in our legal system.
People relying on these facilities can deliver their evidence in a far less intimidating room, with only a handful of people around them who are necessary at that time. This is much better than the public courtroom, where the overall appearance of the room has changed very little since the days when we were still trying people for witchcraft.