Witness support offices help to deliver justice


From 2008-2013, the seven witness support offices have provided support and counseling to more than 14,000 witnesses. Photo: Sunčica Pleština

By Sunčica Pleština

Highlights

  • UNDP has worked in partnership with the Croatian Ministry of Justice and the Supreme Court to create a network of offices that provide crime victims with the information and reassurance they need to appear in court and testify with confidence.
  • The Council of Europe has recognized the Croatian system as a model for the rest of the region.
  • We rely on our volunteer network, which now numbers 193 people, to expand the system of witness-victim support.

"As an employee of a retail chain, to my greatest regret, I was the witness of an armed robbery. It was an extremely traumatic experience that forced me to change my job," writes M. K. in her letter to the President of Vukovar County Court. "Four years after the event, I received a summons to testify against the suspected perpetrator, and my agony started again. For days I could not sleep … fearful of meeting the suspect and of his revenge. I was re-living the fear and stress of that day."

Fortunately, along with her summons, M.K. received contact information for the Office for Witness and Victim Support attached to the Vukovar County Court. The day before her testimony she paid the office a visit. Branka Lučić, the office head, and her assistant Daniela Čukelj welcomed M.K. and explained the court process and what to expect, even showing her on a diagram where she would sit. When she went to court to give gave evidence, M.K. was joined by the office staff.

"On the day of testimony, a day which I feared for years, Branka was there to support me. With her gentle voice and light conversation she diverted my attention away from the process. It worked on me better than any medication. Totally calm and relaxed I waited until it was my turn to testify. Fear was replaced with peace, security and a sense of awareness that I was doing the right thing. Afterwards I was completely calm; I went to work and felt wonderful, like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders."

Seven offices counsel more than 14,000 witnesses

Support offices like the one in Vukovar were created by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), working together with the Croatian Ministry of Justice and Supreme Court. Over six years, the seven witness support offices in operation – four set up in 2008 and another three created in 2011 – have already provided support and counselling to more than 14,000 victims, and the number is rising steadily as the availability of this assistance becomes more widely known.

Inspired by the need to provide protection the victims of war crimes committed during the 1991-95 war that accompanied the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the offices were ultimately created to address the needs of any victim who otherwise might be too fearful or traumatized to testify.

Assistance has been provided in cases of domestic violence, assault, robbery, rape and sexual abuse, murder, corruption, war crimes and organized crime. Support services are particularly vital in cases of domestic violence. The offices provide services free of charge, and witnesses enjoy full confidentiality.

The first four witness support offices were created in 2008 at county courts in Osijek, Vukovar, Zadar and Zagreb. UNDP hired the office staff (generally psychologists or social workers), provided them with specialized training, and secured and refurbished offices and waiting rooms. The private waiting rooms serve a vital function, as they give witnesses a secure refuge where there is no risk of an encounter with their assailants in the courthouse corridors. The offices also enlisted the help of a network of trained volunteers, many of them law students; this now numbers nearly 200.

A first challenge was alerting the public to the existence of the centers. A public awareness campaign, No witness, no justice, was conducted nationwide, informing citizens that victims of crimes have rights that are protected and where they should turn for help.A dedicated website was also created at www.mprh.hr with practical information about trial proceedings. Finally, starting in November 2008, a leaflet detailing the services of witness support offices and contact information was attached to every court subpoena. These efforts prompted an increase in the number of visitors to the support offices, and this in turn improved the response rate for witnesses in court cases.

After a first successful year, the Ministry of Justice and court administration undertook to cover the costs of the support offices, ensuring their sustainability. A second wave of Witness and Victim Support Offices was created by UNDP early in 2011, at the county courts in Rijeka, Sisak and Split. These additions ensure that now every major Croatian city has a witness support office. As with the first four offices, the Justice Ministry kept its pledge to take over funding for the three new offices in 2012. The costs of creating the witness-victim support system have been modest. The seven offices were set up on a budget of under $1.1 million, with funding from UNDP, the Netherlands, Spain, the United States, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

UNDP is now expanding the system further to establish a nationwide toll-free telephone hotline staffed by volunteers from the Witness and Victims Support Association. Once in operation, this service will address the needs of crime victims who live too far away to seek advice at one of the seven county courts that have Witness Victim Support Offices, and also those who prefer anonymity.

Overcoming mistrust of the justice system

As the staff of witness support offices attest, many Croatian citizens remain apprehensive of even entering a courthouse, let alone appearing in a courtroom to testify. This firsthand view is supported by public opinion surveys which show that only one-third of Croatian citizens believe the system is efficient in finding and prosecuting the perpetrators of criminal offenses, and as many as 40 percent believe that the penal system fails to address the needs of crime victims. A significant share who say they have been victims of a crime admit that they have never reported the offence to the police.

People summoned to testify often lack the most basic information. Although the witness support offices are barred from delving into the substance of witness testimony, they do answer a host of questions about the judicial process and the rights and obligations of witnesses.

Typical questions include: Do I have an obligation to testify? Can I be forced to appear? What will the judge ask? Who is allowed to be present? How long do the hearings last? Who covers my expenses? Do I have to meet the accused? Where will the accused be sitting? (Witnesses are often relieved to discover that the defendant is seated behind them, so there is no need to make eye contact.) In addition, although the support office itself does not provide legal or psychological counseling, its staff can refer witnesses and victims to other institutions and associations that can provide expert help.

When UNDP and Ministry of Justice first raised the idea of witness support offices, Croatian judges were sceptical, fearing interference in their own work. Now, however, they are among the system's biggest advocates. They cite a reduction in the number of proceedings that are stalled because witnesses fail to appear in court; an increase in the number of particularly vulnerable victims who decide to report crimes and give evidence; and a rising number of victims and witnesses who are willing to testify.

Now judges are even reaching out to witness support offices in sensitive cases, where there is a particular risk that a witness will fail to respond to a subpoena. Asking the witness support office to reach out to victims reduces the risk of having to postpone a hearing or bring a witness forcibly to court and impose a fine. It also improves the confidence and thus the credibility of witness testimony.

A model for justice and reconciliation

In sum, the offices play three main roles: they protect the human rights of crime victims; they improve the efficiency of the justice system by helping deliver the confident and reliable witness testimony needed to put criminals behind bars; and they help restore civic trust in the rule of law. The Croatian model of witness support offices has been recognized internationally as a success story and a model for other countries.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe explicitly praised the work of UNDP in a 26 January 2011 resolution entitled, "The protection of witnesses as a cornerstone for justice and reconciliation in the Balkans" and urged that witness support offices be established across Southeast Europe.

It is hard to imagine a more glowing endorsement: Resolution 1784 calls upon "the competent authorities in the states and territories concerned to provide funding for and establish witness support programmes, using those that have been set up by the United Nations Development Programme in Croatia as a model, in all courts dealing with witnesses in serious crimes."