Judicial Reform and the Empowerment of Victims
Zagreb, 28-29 Nov. 2012
Survey on Court Support to Victims and Witnesses of Crimes Presented
Judges, on the other hand, believe that the most important legal options the victims currently do not have during testimony are as follows: psychological and emotional support (82.7%), free legal counselling (60.9%) and indemnification by the state (37.3%).
These are the results of the research conducted by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Croatia, as part of its support to Croatian judicial reform. The research was conducted in the beginning of 2007, and it included 130 witnesses who testified at nine County Courts: in Zagreb, Split, Rijeka, Osijek, Varaždin, Pula, Zadar, Sisak and Bjelovar, during the period of one month when the survey was carried out. The survey included victims and witnesses of criminal offences like murders or attempted murders, rapes, war crimes, robberies and extortion. 110 judges, who deal with criminal cases, from 21 County Courts, were also surveyed.
Snježana Bagić, State Secretary, Ministry of Justice, Yuri Afanasiev, UNDP Resident Representative in Croatia, Branko Hrvatin, President of the Supreme Court, and Mladen Bajić, Chief State Attorney discussed the results of the research, current condition of support to witnesses and projections for future at the round table.
The research proves that existing legal framework of victims' and witnesses' rights protection is inadequate. This is primarily true of free legal counselling, indemnification of the victims by the state, reducing of secondary victimization, as well as regulating protection of witnesses and their privacy. The need for adequate witness support system is felt not only by the witnesses themselves, but also by the judges who often perceive the witnesses' needs, but do not know how to help them. The research also shows that it is essential to educate people who work with victims and witnesses on the witnesses' rights and procedures in dealing with them, as well as on methods of providing psychological and emotional support to witnesses in judicial proceedings.
The State Secretary in the Ministry of Justice, Snježana Bagić, pointed out that „promoting and developing victim support and assistance system in the Republic of Croatia is an important segment of social activities that deserves special attention. Establishing support to crime victims and witnesses in courts marks the onset of creating a support system since it is necessary to provide assistance to victims beyond judicial proceedings. The existing practise, focused on position and rights of the defendant in judicial proceedings, is changing. Attention is being directed to the needs of victims and other participants in criminal proceedings, particularly the vulnerable ones".
„The citizens' increasing demand for efficient judicial system obliges the national governments to timely provide evidence, which in serious criminal offences depend mostly on response of witnesses and victims. It is necessary to provide a comprehensive support system that may respond to the needs of witnesses and victims, and to protect their fundamental rights for the full integrity of criminal proceedings. The results of the research indicated the need to establish a service for support to crime victims and witnesses in courts in the Republic of Croatia. We are prepared to sustain the Ministry of Justice and the courts in their endeavours", said Yuri Afanasiev, UNDP Resident Representative in Croatia.
In 94.6% of cases, witnesses-surveyees were not offered to contact the service or organization that could give them practical or psychological assistance, and as many as 69% of witnesses who did not have contact with a service for witness support think that this kind of contact would have been useful to them. Judges are also aware of the problem, and as many as 81.8% of judges noticed the witnesses were psychologically threatened, but often do not know where the witnesses may get assistance. 68.2% of judges do not have enough information on organizations or experts that provide psychological and emotional assistance to victims and witnesses. The same percentage of judges, 68.2%, believes that courts should have a service providing witness support.
The fact that 94.6% of witnesses wait in the hallway until they are called to testify, reveals inadequate conditions in courts. 60% of witnesses-surveyees feel uncomfortable during proceedings, in most part because of the contact with the defendant (36.9% feel the need for protection from contact with the defendant). This contact with the defendant in the hallway and later on, during the testimony itself, in the courtroom particularly upsets victims and witnesses of war crimes. As many as 85.4% of judges believe they do not posses knowledge on methods through which they could reduce the witnesses' feeling of being psychologically threatened. Majority of judges-surveyees think they lack expert information on applying methods of support (76.7%) and believe there are not sufficient professional training programmes on applying methods of support to victims and witnesses (91.3%).
The round table on this topic was an excellent opportunity to consider possible systematic providing support to victims and witnesses in judicial proceeding.
Ksenija Turković, Faculty of Law, Zagreb, Marin Mrčela, judge at Zagreb County Court, and Dean Ajduković, Faculty of Philosophy, Zagreb, are the authors of the research.
Around 50 people took part in the round table discussion, including County Courts Presidents, and representatives of OESS, European Commission, ICTY Office in Zagreb, Embassies, and non-governmental organizations: DOCUMENTA and Volunteer Organization providing support to victims/witnesses in judicial proceedings at County Court in Vukovar.