Vulnerable Witnesses In Civil Proceedings | Northern Ireland Law Commission
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Vulnerable Witnesses In Civil Proceedings

Traditionally, witnesses in both criminal and civil proceedings before the courts have been expected to give their evidence in person, before a public forum. The reason behind this approach is to allow the evidence given by that witness to be tested in court so that conclusions about his or her credibility can be reached.

However, the criminal law in Northern Ireland allows certain witnesses to use “special measures” when giving their evidence to a criminal court. Children, adults with disabilities and witnesses who are suffering from fear and distress about giving evidence can all benefit from “special measures” in various circumstances. “Special measures” assist the witness to give their evidence in a number of different ways. For example, the use of screens in a courtroom removes the need for the witness to see or be seen by the accused. Allowing evidence to be given by way of television link allows the witness to see the court, but removes him or her from the stressful atmosphere of the courtroom, whilst still allowing the court to hear and see the witness. “Special measures” can also aid the witness in communicating to the court, for example, by allowing the witness to communicate by methods other than the spoken word.

The Commission published a Consultation Paper NILC 4 (2010) which considered whether there is any merit in introducing “special measures” for witnesses in civil proceedings. The consultation period ran from 1 April 2010 to 30 June 2010. Following the analysis of responses from a wide range of consultees from non-governmental organisations, political parties, local government, non-departmental public bodies and the legal professions, it has become clear that there is inadequate protection for witnesses under the current law and practice in Northern Ireland.

The publication of the Report on Vulnerable Witnesses in Civil Proceedings completes the Vulnerable Witnesses in Civil Proceedings Project. The Report contains our recommendations to Government for reform together with draft legislation to implement the proposals.

In its Report the Commission sets out its proposals for the reform of the law relating to vulnerable witnesses. The Commission’s recommendations are intended to assist certain witnesses, who may experience particular difficulties, to give their best evidence in civil proceedings. In particular, the Commission’s scheme aims to protect children, those living with mental illness, learning disabilities and physical disabilities and disorders and those who may experience fear and distress in connection with testifying. Furthermore, the Commission has also made a number of recommendations for the reform of the law relating to the competence of witnesses to give evidence in civil proceedings.

Related documents
Report on Vulnerable Witnesses in Civil Proceedings NILC 10 (2011)
Consultation Paper Vulnerable Witnesses in Civil Proceedings NILC4 (2010)