In May 2018, at the request of the Ministry of Justice, a working group, led by HHJ Cotter QC, was set up to better understand the extent of the problems that vulnerable witnesses and other parties face in civil courts and suggest possible solutions to these issues.
Today the final report and recommendations have been published (see attached report below).
The Master of the Rolls, as Chairman of the Civil Justice Council (CJC), Sir Terence Etherton, said: “For the justice system to work appropriate assistance must be provided to those that need it, to ensure they can take part in proceedings to the best of their ability.
“The CJC has worked to provide much-needed insight into the level of protection and support for vulnerable people in civil, non-criminal or family, proceedings. It is uniquely placed to do so.”
Chair of the Civil Justice Council Working Group on Vulnerable Parties/Witnesses HHJ Barry Cotter QC said: “At the request of The Ministry of Justice, the working group has investigated how the civil justice system can better help vulnerable individuals to participate in civil litigation and also vulnerable witnesses to give the best evidence that they can. The Council has produced a comprehensive and detailed report recommending immediate and widespread changes to rules, practices, training and resources.
“The public consultation undertaken by the CJC highlighted very real concerns about the current level of assistance for vulnerable people in civil proceedings, and also the lack of data. One of the Council’s recommendations is that data must be gathered on vulnerable people in the court system, and adds to the arguments for greater data collection across the entire justice system.
“The Council hopes that those organisations to whom the recommendations are directed, will consider them as a matter of urgency.”
The report makes 18 recommendations to enhance the experience of vulnerable witnesses and others including:
- Rule changes to further ensure that all civil judges, parties and advocates consider vulnerability of people involved in civil proceedings.
- The Judicial College should enhance the training of civil judges to detect and assist vulnerable witnesses and consider making this training mandatory. HMCTS should do the same for all staff who handle civil cases. Professional bodies are also asked to consider how their members can be trained to work with vulnerable parties and witnesses
- HMCTS should look at the availability, use and funding of intermediaries in civil cases
- Court facilities should be equipped to accommodate assistance or protections that vulnerable witnesses require
- The Ministry of Justice should increase its financial support to Litigants in Person (including to Support Through Court and other key charities)
- The Judicial College should consider its training of criminal Judges to ensure Criminal Compensation Orders are used where possible to reduce the need for victims of sexual abuse having to make a subsequent claim in the civil courts. Victims of sexual abuse should be awarded compensation at the earliest possible moment, so that it can be used to fund treatment far earlier than will often be the case if they relied on provision by the NHS or other statutory services; as this sometimes leads to a much earlier reduction in their symptoms or the effects they experience.