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Witnesses: Elderly and Mentally Ill

Volume 498: debated on Tuesday 27 October 2009

To ask the Secretary of State for Justice what steps HM Courts Service takes to support (a) older people and (b) people with mental health problems when appearing as witnesses in court proceedings. (294915)

Standard 25 of The Witness Charter requires the defence or prosecution in criminal proceedings to ask court staff to make provision for any special needs which a witness may have as a result of a disability, medical condition or age, which mean that they need help attending court or in giving evidence.

Section 8.4 of the Code of Practice for victims of crime places a statutory obligation on court staff to ensure that, where possible, at criminal proceedings in respect of relevant criminal conduct victims have, and are directed to, a separate waiting area and a seat in the courtroom away from the defendant's family or friends.

The HMCS Reasonable Adjustments Guidance states that adjustments must be made for all court users, including witnesses, who are protected by the Disability Discrimination Act, which covers those with mental health problems. This could involve altering a procedure or practice for the benefit of the court user. The guidance can be viewed at:

The HMCS Disability Advice Factsheets include a section on court users who have mental health problems. This provides communication suggestions for providing a service to customers with a disability. The document can be viewed at:

with the section on mental health on pages 10-11.

The Judicial Studies Board's Equal Treatment Benchbook has a chapter on disabilities which refers to mental health frequently (section 5). Section 5.3 is devoted entirely to the topic of mental disability, with 5.3.3 referring specifically to mentally disabled witnesses. This document can be viewed at:

The Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 provides a range of special measures to support vulnerable and intimidated witnesses when giving evidence in court.

Vulnerable witnesses include children and also adults who suffer from a mental disorder or otherwise have a significant impairment of social functioning. Witnesses in fear or distress of testifying may also receive assistance from special measures and when determining such applications the court must take into account a number of factors including the age of the witness. It is a matter for the court to decide which, if any, of the special measures will be available to any particular witness.

The special measure provisions include:

Evidence by live link from outside the court room

Screens in the court room to prevent the witness from viewing the defendant

Video recorded evidence in chief

Evidence in private, in sex offence cases and those involving intimidation

Communication aids

Assistance with communication from an intermediary.

The 1999 Act also reformed the law on competency so that all witnesses, whatever their age or disability, are competent to give evidence unless they cannot understand the questions asked or cannot answer them in a way that can be understood.