Invisible presences: the routine processing of the lay prosecution witness in the English and Welsh criminal justice system

  • Stephen Phillip Black

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    Why study prosecution witnesses?

    The earliest origins of the thesis can be located in my professional involvement in a debate that was being held within Bedfordshire Police regarding the performance of the Force in detecting crime. The detection rate had always been the one indicator traditionally used to show the performance of a police force and Bedfordshire was achieving little in the way of success compared to other forces. The detection rate for crime was remaining consistently low and in a number of categories of crime was actually falling. The force, concerned about these issues, had set up a number of working parties to tackle the problems. As a member of one group, I became involved in the fundamental debate about what factors contributed to the overall detection process. Issues such as the use of informants, scientific evidence, house to house enquiries and other procedures were all discussed. One area which appeared to justify further research related to the role of the prosecution witness and their contribution both in providing the police with information and ultimately in securing a successful conviction at court.

    It has become a truism to note that the police would be unable to detect many crimes if it were not for either the public directly reporting the incident or subsequently that the witnesses were questioned about the case by police officers. The public’s evidence forms a crucial element in building up the prosecution case. The lay witness thus plays a major role in the acquirement of evidence and in securing a conviction for those cases where there is sufficient evidence to submit the case file to the Crown Prosecution Service (henceforth CPS). Subsequently discussions were held with a number of groups and individuals within the justice system such as Victim Support, police officers, the courts’ administrative and professional staff and the CPS. The consensus of opinion indicated that there were several issues relating to lay prosecution witnesses that justified further investigation. Accordingly there needed to be a move away from the original narrow focus on the practicalities of increasing the detection rate, to a more in-depth and far ranging study that would explore the hidden and uninvestigated ‘career’ perceptions of the lay prosecution witness.

    Preliminary discussions had revealed that many criminal justice professionals considered that the experience of being a witness was not a particularly pleasant one. It also seemed that there might be parallels between the experiences of lay witnesses in Bedfordshire and some of the findings of writers such as Shapland et al (1985) who had studied victims over a decade previously. There was a current and widely expressed belief that witnesses often found the experience uncomfortable and difficult, and so would not want to repeat the process. It appeared that potential witnesses were also being dissuaded from contacting the police because of perceptions or knowledge that they held about the experience. As the initial research progressed a number of themes began to emerge for example, how did the prosecution witness both relate to and fit into the justice system and what impact did the rise of public sector consumerism have on the witness? Other issues included examining the reasons behind the sudden political and media interest in the intimidation of witnesses in the mid 1990’s in Britain and finally the tripartite relationship of the police, CPS and the witness appeared to be an important topic for examination.

    An initial literature search indicated that little had been written by criminologists and social scientists directly on the subject of witnesses as a ‘stand alone group. Rock (1993: 4) had also drawn attention to this fact although this must be tempered by the recognition that considerable research had been carried out on a number of the other consumer groups that had connections with the Criminal Justice System (henceforth CJS). The defendants had always had some criminological interest shown in them (see, for example, McConville et al, 1991, Bottomley et al.t 1991, Hood, 1992, Sanders, 1994). Victims as a group had also captured the ‘criminological imagination', at least in the last two to three decades with work being carried out on their experiences under the broad stance of ‘Victimology’ (see, for example, Shapland et al., 1985, Maguire and Pointing, 1988). It appeared, however, that there were few references directly on lay witnesses (but see, Ash, 1972, Raine and Smith, 1991, Rock, 1993, 1994, Maynard, 1994).

    It was thus decided to carry out a comprehensive study of the processing of the lay prosecution witness. This would be from the time the witness first entered the system to the completion of his or her evidence within a CJS dominated by a largely administrative and professionally based organisation. The research would examine the issues from a broad social policy based focus and would be driven by broader intellectual questions rather than the original limited pragmatic focus on detection rate issues. The research being undertaken would seek to open up the closed world of the witness to further academic scrutiny and debate.

    The thesis is structured as follows, chapter 1 sets out the main objective of the study. It presents the key areas of research together with what the study hopes to achieve. It explains why a number of witness groups were excluded from the study and explains the role of the police in the research. Chapter 2 reviews the relevant research and literature on the three groups that make up the ‘occasional lay users’ of the CJS, namely the defendants, the victims and the witnesses. The research on defendants is particularly interesting as it supplies us with the notion of the ‘lay actor’ in the CJS. Victimology contributes research on victims that draws some important parallels with this particular study of witnesses. This is followed by an examination of the key texts already written on the witness. In chapter 3 the various research techniques used in the study are discussed including their incorporation into the methodological approach of triangulation’ (Denzin, 1970). Chapter 4 presents the reader with a chronological account of the process a prosecution witness goes through and how a trial is constructed. It starts from when the witness initially contacts or is contacted by the police, right the way through to when they are dismissed from their duties and responsibilities as a witness by the court. Chapter 5 presents the results of the substantive research carried out on a sample of witnesses who attended Luton Crown Court. Chapter 6 examines some of the wider issues of consumerism and the growth of community action that may directly impinge on the witness process. Finally, chapter 7 concludes the thesis with an overview of the key issues that have been identified regarding the routine processing of the lay prosecution witness.
    Date of Award1996
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • University of Northampton
    SupervisorGordon Hughes (Supervisor)

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