ARRANGEMENTS FOR VULNERABLE WITNESSES: HURDLES IN THE WAY OF SENSIBLE ARRANGEMENTS

The very title of the case Ajayi v Abu & Anor (labour exploitation : human trafficking : modern slavery) [2017] EWHC 1946 (QB) gives a clue that this is going to be an important and difficult issue.  The judgment, however, highlights the practical difficult the Master had in making arrangements for the vulnerable claimant.  There were hurdles to be overcome (which were, after some difficulty) were overcome.

THE CASE

The claimant brought an action against her former “employers” stating that she had been a victim of human trafficking and was entitled to earnings she should have been paid over a 10 year period.  The Master considered the steps needed to properly accommodate the claimant as  a vulnerable witness and the practical difficulties that had to be overcome.

THE JUDGMENT
Civil Procedure: Procedural modifications where there may be a real risk of secondary victimisation
  1. By a letter dated 23/2/17 the Claimant’s representatives (ATLEU) requested special hearing arrangements for this trial in view of the allegations of trafficking, the alleged vulnerability of the Claimant and the risk that a failure to adjust court procedure for the trial would interfere disproportionately with Ms Ajayi’s Article 6 rights to a fair hearing.
  2. I take note that Art. 11(4)(b) read with Art. 12 of the Directive on Preventing and Combating Trafficking in Human Beings and Protecting its Victim, 2011/36/EU, recognises that Member States must ensure that victims of trafficking receive specific treatment aimed at preventing as far as possible (consistent with national law and judicial discretion) that visual contact between victims and defendants including during the giving of evidence, so as to avoid secondary victimisation.
  3. I was referred to Kimathi and Others v Foreign and Commonwealth Office [2015] EWHC 3684 (QB), in which Stewart J ordered the provision of video links in relation to a number of claimants and to Duffy v George [2013] EWCA Civ 908 where the Court of Appeal reminded tribunals that they have a wide discretion when it comes to designing fair procedures for substantive hearings (although this discretion must be exercised judicially). I was also referred to Witness Charter (2008) in relation to appropriate court facilities and measures. (In fact the current edition is that dated 2013).
  4. Whilst this is not a criminal trial I considered that it was appropriate consistent with the Overriding Objective, and with Art. 6 of the Convention to direct that the trial take place in a courtroom at the Royal Courts of Justice which provided (i) separate entrances and exits from the court for the Claimant and Defendant sides, (ii) screening so that during the giving of evidence the Claimant could be cross examined by counsel but would not be in the line of sight of the Defendants themselves and (iii) that there should be separate waiting areas for the two sides.
  5. In the event the Court system struggled to meet those requirements and the trial started late. Only certain court rooms are suitable, and the appropriate court had been arranged and listed but it was nonetheless found to be in use for a different case and judge, which delayed matters. Witness screens had not been arranged by the Court Service and there was initial refusal by the relevant office to do so on the day (this was later resolved), and the room adjacent to the court affording direct access to the witness box, which had been set aside for use by the Claimant and legal team separately from the Defendants had been occupied by staff from a public inquiry, and could not be used.
  6. I commend the Masters’ court staff assisting me ‘on the ground’ on morning of trial for having gone to great lengths to enable the trial to go ahead on the day. It is essential that the court fulfils its obligations in respect of proper measures to allow witnesses to give their testimony freely.