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Witness intimidation

Witness intimidation is when an attempt is made to threaten or persuade a witness not to give evidence to the police or courts, or to give evidence in a way that is favourable to the defendant. In most cases, the offender will be the defendant or the defendant's family or friends. It is generally considered that intimidation is more likely to follow offences of violence, particularly domestic violence and vandalism.

A further form of intimidation may be thought of as 'cultural intimidation'. This occurs where family or friends of the victim or witness try to dissuade him or her from assisting in an investigation or an inquiry. There may be a variety of reasons for this including bringing shame on the victim's family. In addition, there may be norms of behaviour within a culture for dealing with criminal matters that do not involve the formal agencies of the criminal justice system.

Section 51 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 creates two offences:

  • s.51(1) creates an offence directed at acts against a person assisting in the investigation of an offence or is a witness or potential witness or juror or potential juror whilst an investigation or trial is in progress; and
  • s.51(2) creates an offence directed at acts against a person who assisted in an investigation of an offence or who was a witness or juror after an investigation or trial has been concluded.

The offences are triable either way. In the magistrates' court, the maximum penalty is six months' imprisonment and/or a fine to the statutory maximum. In the Crown Court, the maximum penalty is five years' imprisonment and/or a fine.

Such offences go to the heart of the administration of justice. If there is sufficient evidence of witness intimidation the public interest requires that normally such cases should be prosecuted.

Intimidation is very rare. The Crime Survey for England and Wales: Year ending September 2015 found that 'people being intimidated, verbally abused or harassed' had risen to 3.5% from 3% in the previous survey from October 2013 to September 2014.

Find out more about the ONS Crime Surveys for England and Wales

Protecting Witnesses

There are a few ways to try and protect witnesses:

  • Criminal and civil proceedings can be taken against the intimidators who could then face jail
  • Specialist hand and security alarms can provide additional security
  • In rare cases anonymity can be granted; and
  • In very serious cases and extreme circumstances witnesses can be afforded witness protection and relocated to another part of the UK and even change their identity.

If you are worried about intimidation you should talk to the police.

Find out more about witness protection and anonymity

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