Improving support for witnesses of crimes
Experiencing or witnessing a criminal act can be intimidating. If you then also have to testify in court, it can be both frightening and difficult. In many places, the facilities offered vary. Sometimes, witnesses for the defendant have to sit side by side with witnesses for the prosecution. Anyone who is called to give evidence for a case will soon discover that more could be done for the witnesses. Emotional support, as well as information about the relevant legal and procedural rules presented in a way that is accessible, help to guide the witness through an unfamiliar and challenging situation.
In Norway, 430 Red Cross volunteers give emotional and practical support to 10,000 victims and witnesses each year. The result of a partnership between the Norwegian Red Cross and the Norwegian Court administration initiated in 2006, this “Witness Service” is now available in 45 courts across the country.
Volunteers help as counsellors, supporting victims and witnesses who find themselves in situations of vulnerability. The aim is to ensure that the person feels safer and fully understands their role, which enables them to provide clear and reliable testimonies in court.
The counsellors receive thorough and comprehensive training from both the Red Cross and court authorities. In addition to first aid and psychosocial course, counsellors are required to complete a module on court proceedings, which gives them enough knowledge to respond to most of the questions and needs that witnesses have before and after delivering their testimonies.
When a victim or witness feels more comfortable with the situation at hand, they are likelier to be able to concentrate on the testimony, providing the court with a more solid basis for making the correct decision. Their testimony plays an important role in the judicial proceedings and thereby supports the rule of law in society. Additionally, as court proceedings can be a particularly stressful for those involved, counselling is vital for people who are afraid and in need of qualified assistance.
The establishment of the Witness Service has demonstrated the relatively limited support that was previously available to victims and witnesses in the courthouse. To protect the rule of law in a democracy, it is vital that victims and witnesses are greeted by a qualified counsellor, rather than a government official, as they are more likely to provide the support and advice needed for a reliable testimony.
"Once there was a young girl. She was 16 years old and the case was an attempted rape. She was sitting outside the courtroom crying unconsolably. She was both the offended and the witness in the case. She had brought her mother, but her mother was also testifying in the case, so she could not go in to the courtroom with her daughter. Luckily, I was there and could offer to accompany her and sit next to her on the witness stand," recalls witness support volunteer, Tove Bjerkli, who has helped to ease the experience for many witnesses over the years.
In 2017, the Council of Europe awarded the service with the Crystal Scales of Justice prize. The Prize rewards innovative and efficient judicial practices in European judicial institutions. It represents an acknowledgement of the work carried out by the volunteers, facilitators and members of staff of the Red Cross and the Norwegian courts.