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New book on Crown Court experiences

New research finds appearing in Crown Court is often frightening, frustrating and upsetting for participants

Royal Courts of Justice

...courts are posh: everyone in wigs; everyone talks in this funky language”

“‘...justice is a law unto itself. It doesn’t make any rhyme nor reason. It’s all trickery.”

Research conducted by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research (ICPR) at Birkbeck, University of London has found that appearing in the Crown Court – as a victim, witness or defendant - is often frightening, frustrating and upsetting for participants.

The findings – published today in a new book that delves into the arena in which the country’s most serious criminal offences are trialled – provide a unique insight into the court process, with some painting it as an often chaotic and confusing scene. It is also a process characterised by incongruity: extravagant formality is mixed with informality; the most intimate and sordid details of individuals’ lives are publicly recounted in elaborate fashion; matters of utmost gravity are discussed alongside trivialities; and grief and (black) humour coincide.

And yet, despite the immense contradictions and difficulties of the court experience, and the conflict and hostility at the heart of most court cases, the vast majority of victims, witnesses and defendants are highly compliant in the courtroom. They arrive when told to do so (albeit sometimes late); they sit or stand as instructed; they answer the questions posed to them and in the required manner; and they conduct themselves according to the social rules of the courtroom. This ‘reluctant conformity’ of court users appears to reflect an implicit belief in the legitimacy of the court process and the decisions reached in court.

The study provides a vivid description of what it is like to attend Crown Court, be it as a victim, defendant, witness, member of staff, judge or barrister. It outlines the interplay between the various participants and the extent to which the court process is viewed as legitimate by those involved in it. It also shows how bewildering court proceedings can be and describes their character of ‘structured mayhem’.

Alongside this, the book discusses how the trial process constructs a version of the ‘truth’ of events that often bears little resemblance to what was actually experienced by any of the individuals involved.

Dr Jessica Jacobson, Co-Director of the Institute for Criminal Policy Research and lead author of Inside Crown Court, said: “Our book describes the realities of the courtroom experience. It addresses issues that are of profound public concern, such as the trauma faced by some victims when giving evidence, as highlighted by recent high profile trials concerning alleged sexual offences. Importantly, this study also helps show ways in which the difficulties and stresses associated with appearing in court are eased, and points to what further efforts can be made done to enhance support for court users.”

Penny Cooper, Professor of Law at Kingston University and co-founder and Chair of The Advocate’s Gateway, said: “This book provides a unique window on what is really going on in court, dispels myths, chronicles what is changing and shows what still needs to change. I commend the book to students, lawyers and policy-makers.”

The book will be launched today at the Royal Courts of Justice.

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