Article 18 – Right to access court based support services

Article 18 – Right to access court based support services

Member States shall take the necessary measures to establish court-based support services to provide information, practical and emotional support to victims and witnesses attending a criminal hearing.

COMMENTARY – Article 18

In article 10a of its proposal, the European Commission introduces the right to assistance at court. VSE welcomes the addition of this important new right. However, VSE suggests changes to the scope of the service in terms of the type of support offered, and the users who benefit from such support. VSE further emphasises the need to clarify the reference, in the explanatory memorandum, to “court staff” as being those that will deliver the service.

Some victims may not have contacted support services before attending their court hearing, whilst others may only feel the need for support on arrival at the court building. For these victims, access to court based support will limit further harm, thus benefitting their effective participation and overall experience of the criminal proceedings. Victims, who have received court based support, indicate that they feel better informed, safer and more confident, and better prepared to give evidence. Besides reducing stress and trauma, court-based support may also contribute to improving the number of victims and witnesses who attend court hearings.

The VSE proposal introduces a broader right to access court based support. Firstly, the VSE proposal includes a reference to practical support as being one of the services offered by court based support service. This may include, for instance, setting up of a room for video evidence or arranging separate waiting rooms for victims to avoid contact with offender on court premises.

Secondly, VSE believes that this right should be available not only to victims, but also to witnesses. Witnesses may also experience trauma following a crime, or feel stressed as they have never been to a courtroom. Moreover, in many countries, witnesses, unlike victims, must testify under oath, thus they risk additional consequences if they are unable to fully share their story. We recognise, however, that this may be considered to be beyond the scope of the current Directive.

 Thirdly, VSE has not included any specifics on the delivery of court based support. We consider that this may be offered by various operational means, such as having support workers from external (non-court-based) organisations accompanying victims to or meeting victims at the courthouse for support purposes. This accompaniment should be provided by trained support workers, whether volunteers or employees. VSE strongly recommends that staff delivering court based support are present onsite during court hours. As an example; in 2022, over 20% of V-Sac’s (the Irish Victim Support at Court organisation) clients were walk-ins, meaning that these victims or witnesses only contacted the service on their arrival at court.

Finally, the VSE proposal refers to criminal hearings, to ensure court based support may be offered to those attending all hearings during the criminal justice process whether these are: preliminary hearings; preparatory interviews and meetings with criminal justice agencies; to record evidence; attend trial, retrial, sentencing, appeal and release proceedings; or any other proceeding at which the crime committed against the victim, or the sentence of the offender is to be discussed.