A voice in court for the vulnerable

E-learning programme gives thousands essential training on new legislation to protect witnesses.

The Crown Prosecution Service is using e-learning to ensure that vulnerable witnesses and victims of sexual offences are treated in an appropriate way, writes Ross Bentley.

The initiative came about after new legislation regarding the treatment of vulnerable or intimidated witnesses came into force on 24 July 2002.

As a result, the CPS had to ensure that more than 4,000 lawyers and caseworkers were fully trained in the new legislative and non-legislative measures. The service recognised that using classroom training alone would be expensive, time consuming, and difficult to update.

To meet the need to train large numbers of geographically dispersed people quickly, the CPS introduced a comprehensive e-learning solution, combined with specialist classroom training.

The agency contracted Iqdos to design and deliver the e-learning component. Those taking the programme have to complete the e-learning part of the training before attending the classroom for a three-day follow-up session. Issues covered in the e-learning programme include methods of identifying vulnerability, what the legal measures are and how to apply them.

The corresponding three-day classroom course identifies the skills and attitude changes needed to deal effectively with the range of witnesses who may be eligible for assistance under the provisions of the Act.

The classroom is run by internal CPS training staff in partnership with the Ann Craft Trust, a national association dedicated to protecting adults and children with learning difficulties from abuse.

Sheelagh Morton, policy adviser at the CPS, said, "This blended initiative has marked an end to formal legal lectures in a classroom setting. It has required a fundamental shift in the approach to legal training, with lawyers using e-learning to equip themselves with the required knowledge. The e-learning enables lawyers to access, research and update their knowledge of legislative and non-legislative developments at the right time.

"Successful prosecutions have already followed the introduction of the legislation, including a case in which a man was jailed for five years for indecent assault. The victim, a woman with multiple sclerosis, gave evidence over a live link to court from a nursing home. The conviction represents the first successful outcome of a case involving the special measures under the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act1999."

The full programme is now being used internally by the CPS, and has also been made available to its criminal justice system partners, such as the Bar, the police and the witness service. It aims to provide knowledge and challenge the perceptions and attitudes of those within the criminal justice system relating to vulnerable or intimidated witnesses.

There are now plans to extend the e-learning programme in 2003, offering the service to the Law Society and a range of voluntary agencies. A key benefit of thee-learning package is that it can also be easily updated as case law develops and new legislation comes into force.

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