Dr Bishop’s paper proposes reforms to the pre-trial procedures and special measures provisions used in criminal proceedings where the witness is also a victim of domestic violence.

Dr Charlotte Bishop presents proposals for reform to the criminal law on complainant-witnesses in domestic violence proceedings

Dr Charlotte Bishop presented at the Criminal Law Reform Now Conference as part of a series of events coinciding with the Law Commission consultation on their 13th Programme of law reform.

The conference brought together academics, practitioners, law commissioners and crown prosecutors and was hosted by the University of Sussex from September 13-15 2016.

Dr Bishop’s paper proposes reforms to the pre-trial procedures and special measures provisions used in criminal proceedings where the witness is also a victim of domestic violence. The recommendations are based upon the, insufficiently recognised, link between ongoing abuse and trauma, and use psychological research into the impact of trauma on the brain to expose the evidential and other difficulties encountered when victims of domestic violence testify in court. The ways in which trauma impacts upon the brain, particularly on memory and recall processes, means that a coherent and consistent account of the traumatic experience often cannot be given by the victim. In addition, the process of giving evidence itself may trigger a flashback, panic attack or episode of dissociation which may be seized upon by the defence during cross-examination to undermine credibility. If the impact of trauma on the brain is not understood, the credibility, reliability and veracity of the witness’s account may be doubted by those involved in the decision-making process.

A series of amendments and measures are proposed, all of which take a trauma-informed approach to providing the necessary assistance for effective participation in the criminal justice process without victim safety and psychological integrity being compromised. If developed and adopted, the reforms would thus help overcome two factors which contribute to the high attrition rate in domestic violence cases; victim retraction (by reducing some of the stress associated with participating in the criminal justice process) and lack of witness credibility (by providing information about trauma for all those involved in the process; police, crown prosecutors, magistrates, judges and jury members).

Considerable interest was shown in Dr Bishop’s recommendations by other delegates, with the Crown Prosecution Service in particular keen to hear more about Charlotte’s research generally as they are aware of the need to increase successful prosecutions for domestic violence offences. This proposal was one of ten recommendations for law reform presented at the conference and, having incorporated suggestions resulting from discussion with academics, practitioners and crown prosecutors, the paper will be submitted to the Law Commission as an official reform proposal and published in a special collection.

Date: 15 September 2016

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