Judicial Reform and the Empowerment of Victims
Zagreb, 28-29 Nov. 2012
Higher witness response rate in courts thanks to the work of Victims and Witnesses Support Offices
Offices for Support to Victims and Witnesses of crimes active at county courts since May 2008
PHOTO: Marina Botunac. From left to right: Yuri Afanasiev (UNDP Resident Representative), Branko Hrvatin (President of the Supreme Court), Antun Klišmanić (President of the Zadar County Court) and Ivan Šimonović (Minister of Justice)
Testifying in court, whether as a victim of a crime or as a witness, may be a traumatic experience. The primary task of the offices is to provide emotional support to victims and witnesses before, during and after the trial, and offer useful information on witnesses' rights, course of the trial and so on. The offices do not provide legal counselling or psychological assistance. Support and information given to witnesses and victims are free of charge, and everything they say is confidential.
From May 2008, when the offices were opened, until today, the support was provided for more that 600 witnesses at five pilot courts in four cities in Croatia. There are 8 full time employees at the offices who are assisted by over 40 specially trained volunteers. From 1 November 2008, witnesses of crimes started receiving a leaflet containing information on the office with basic data and contacts in case they want to use the office's services together with subpoena, which resulted in higher witness response rate at courts.
„Success of a trial often depends on the witnesses' response. Witnesses and victims cannot just be considered as evidence. A justice system that wants to be efficient, particularly in the sense of sanctioning perpetrators of crimes, has to take care of the witnesses and victims' needs. A victim and a witness are entitled to respect of their dignity, to protection from secondary victimization and to information on their rights. The benefits of introducing a service for victims and witnesses support may be seen, among other things, in fewer number of stalled proceedings caused by postponed hearings due to witnesses failing to appear before the court; in higher number of particularly vulnerable victims who decide to report crimes and give evidence; and in higher number of victims and witnesses who are ready to testify." – said the Minister of Justice Ivan Šimonović.
Support Offices were established in order to facilitate the reestablishment of public confidence in the criminal justice system, and to respond to victims and witnesses' needs, particularly immediately after the crime, but also later, during judicial proceedings. „European countries' experiences show that support given to victims or witnesses immediately after a crime influences their overall mental state and recovery; the quality of the information they will give to the police, prosecution and judges as part of investigation; as well as the likelihood of their later appearance at court and testimony. Having that in mind, the police, as the first instance the witness meets, can have a strong influence, either positive or negative, on the witness's willingness to get involved in the criminal proceedings, and thus bears huge responsibility that their first encounter with the criminal justice system is a positive one." – thinks Yuri Afanasiev, the UNDP Resident Representative in Croatia. According to the latest survey by UNDP, as many as 64 percent of Croatian citizens would like to receive support immediately after an incident, while 45 percent consider additional support from the police to be useful.
Many victims and witnesses are clearly intimidated by the fact that they have to face the defendant before, during and after the hearing. This is the reason why the pilot courts have, along with Support Offices, special waiting rooms for victims and witnesses. These waiting rooms enable victims and witnesses to be separated from defendants while waiting to testify. The aim of these waiting rooms is to make victims and witnesses feel safe, so that they would not feel vulnerable or scared before they enter the courtroom.
In order for Offices to be successful, it is crucial to constantly work on additional training and development of not only the employees in the Offices, but also other participants in criminal proceedings. For that purpose, new education programs on the rights of victims and witnesses for judges, state attorney office, police and non-governmental organizations are being created.
Photo: Dragana Marina, head of the Witnesses and Victims Support Office in Zadar
This is part of the UNDP project of assistance to introduction of witness and victim support system into Croatian criminal justice system. The project duration is two years and more than 6 million HRK will be used from UNDP resources. During this year the project will expand to several more courts. After completion of the project, in October 2009, permanent Victims and Witnesses Support Departments should be established at courts.
Kristina Nižić (in the middle), Zadar Office Assistant, together with eight young volunteers who help to get the job done (from left to right): Tijana, Antonia, Ivana, Marina, Lucija, Ana, Amanda and Jelena.