Volunteering with ‘Witness Service’ has given me a purpose again

Nicola Cunning, Witness Co-ordinator, Witness Service, Victim Support NI
Nicola Cunning, Witness Co-ordinator, Witness Service, Victim Support NI

Supporting someone through the daunting process of giving evidence in a criminal trial is ‘incredibly rewarding.’

Jill is just one of the volunteers with Victim Support NI’s Witness Service in Derry who gets ‘so much out’ of helping others.

Witness Service have a unique room away from the courthouse for witnesses to give evidence via videolink.

Witness Service have a unique room away from the courthouse for witnesses to give evidence via videolink.

She began volunteering in September after she retired from full time employment.

Jill said: “It is such a worthwhile thing to do. Without this service, I don’t think half the witnesses would turn up for court.

“They are always so grateful and appreciative of the support we offer and I really look forward to it.”

The volunteers are the backbone of the Witness Service and without them the organisation would be unable to function so successfully.

Victim Support NI, which runs the Witness Service, isappealing for new volunteers to help them do their invaluable work.

The prospect of giving evidence in a criminal case can be extremely stressful and bewildering.

However, the process is made much easier thanks to the staff and volunteers of the Witness Service, who offer emotional support and practical information to people going to court.

The service is free and confidential and is available to prosecution witnesses over the age of 18.

Witnesses and victims of crime are generally referred to the Witness Service by the Public Prosecution Service.

In the weeks before a trial, staff will contact the witnesses and offer them the service.

Nicola Cunning, Witness Co-ordinator in the Foyle branch, explained that witnesses will be offered practical information about the court process.

“Not everyone has experience of the criminal justice system so we will offer witnesses the opportunity to visit court before giving evidence.

“This in itself will relieve a lot of anxiety for the witness. We will explain the layout of the courtroom, advise them about where everyone, including a defendant, will be sitting and answer any questions they have.”

Nicola said the pre-trial visit also allows the charity to assess whether witnesses have any additional needs.

“Witnesses may have medical conditions which need to be taken into consideration or mental health difficulties. We can make the PPS aware of any needs a witness may have and measures can be put in place to assist the witness.”

The Derry branch of the Witness Service is located in a different location from the courthouse, something that is particularly unique.

“We have separate waiting areas in our office so witnesses are able to come straight to us rather than having to go into the public areas of the courthouse prior to giving evidence. There is no chance of them running into the defendant or the defendant’s friends and family.

“If special measures are granted and a witness is permitted to give evidence via live video link they can also do this in our office.”

Victim Support NI said this is something they would like to see replicated in courthouses across the North in the future.

A volunteer will remain with a witness in a supportive role throughout the trial process.

They will accompany them into the courtroom, offer support and liaise with court officials to ensure that the witness is in court to give evidence at the appropriate time.

The volunteers also get updates on the case so witnesses can be kept updated at all times and ensure that any issues or concerns are listened to and addressed if possible.

After a case is over the Witness Service will refer victims to Victim Support NI’s Community Service or signpost them to other specialised agencies for counselling.

They also support victims during the sentencing process if they wish to attend court for that.

Nicola said that without the volunteers, who are on the front line supporting witnesses daily, ‘we couldn’t run our valuable service to victims and witnesses’.

All volunteers must be available for at least one day a week and must attend a three day training course.

This includes core learning about the service and training in suicide intervention, supporting victims of sexual or domestic violence and supporting vulnerable adults.

Volunteers are also offered support counselling to help them cope with the details they have to hear in court and have a daily de-brief with Witness Service staff so they can ‘off-load’.

Nicola said the best qualities for a volunteer is a ‘generally caring nature’.

“Volunteers need to be empathetic, a good listener and also be able to chat and put people at ease.”

Clarke began volunteering with the Witness Service five years ago after retirement.

“I read about voluntering with the Witness Service in a newspaper and I decided to give it a try rather than sit about the house.

“It is something I enjoy because people appreciate the service and you learn a lot.

“No two cases are the same and you are learning something new everyday. There are also opportunities to do further training along the way.”

Clarke said that volunteering with the Witness Service would be invaluable to anyone interested in a career in law or social work.

“It would allow them to see the court process from another perspective. The skills they could learn about the court system would be invaluable.”

Jill had always been interested in the judicial system and her retirement seemed like a ‘perfect opprunity to volunteer and give something back.’

“I do this two days a week and while all the training in the world may not prepare you for some of the things you hear in court, it is worth it because I am making a difference.”

Jill says that people are so grateful for the support and she gets so much out of it.

“It is as simple as being a friendly face in the courtroom so people know they are not physically alone.

“It has given me a purpose again and I really enjoy it.”

To find out more about the Witness Service or about volunteering for Victim Support NI visit www.victimsupportni.com