Rolf Harris trial: The volunteers who help court victims

Rolf Harris leaves Southwark Crown Court on Monday after he was found guilty of 12 counts of indecently assaulting four girls Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Rolf Harris was found guilty of 12 counts of indecent assault

A series of high-profile trials of celebrities accused of historical sexual abuse have attracted widespread coverage. But behind the headlines much less is known of the volunteers who give emotional and practical help to the victims.

Shouting reporters and frantically snapping photographers greeted the slow, purposeful arrival of Rolf Harris and his family at Southwark Crown Court every day during his trial.

The same scene awaited Max Clifford in another Operation Yewtree sexual abuse trial.

High above the commotion, in a sparsely decorated but comfortable room, things have been calmer.

In this secure area within the grim 1980s court building, victims, anxious about giving evidence to the court later, have shared coffees with volunteers.

The volunteers give up their time for the Witness Support service - run by the Victim Support charity.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Help offered to witnesses includes emotional support. Picture posed by model

Based in every Crown and magistrates' court in England, they support witnesses - for both the defence and the prosecution - who are giving evidence in all types of criminal cases.

For vulnerable witnesses in the Yewtree cases, that includes talking them through the special measures available, such as giving evidence behind a screen or via videolink.

And it means offering emotional support and sitting behind them while they are giving evidence.

'Very grateful'

Annie Bowman, one of the 10 volunteers at Southwark, says that, during breaks in proceedings, "we have to try and give them some sort of strength to keep giving evidence".

"A lot of this stuff happened many years ago and they probably tried desperately to forget all about it," she says.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Max Clifford was criticised by a judge for his "contemptuous attitude"

She adds: "When the defence gets up and starts saying, 'Well, did this really happen? Are you sure it was on that date?' that is very, very distressing for them."

Fellow volunteer Frances Lovett says: "We have to remind them that they are not on trial."

She adds: "Very often victims have said they're very grateful, very thankful.

"We don't do very much but it's obviously being there, the presence when they're in court, there's someone they can talk to if they wish to."

'More determined'

During another sex abuse trial, Frances and her boss, service delivery manager Dawn Penfold, spent time speaking to an alleged victim who "absolutely did not want to go in" to give evidence.

Dawn adds: "She had to explain bits and pieces that she really didn't feel she should have been in that position to do.

"But she was very brave and, after a long chat with me and Frances, she decided that she would go and do it."

In the case of publicist Max Clifford, Dawn says his attitude in court - described by the judge as "contemptuous" and without remorse - made his victims "absolutely more determined".

Clifford, was convicted of a string of indecent assaults against girls and young women.

Harris, meanwhile, was found guilty of 12 counts of indecent assault on four girls between 1968 and 1986.

'Feel humble'

While the celebrity trials have shone a light on her team, the same help for witnesses involved in all cases is going on every day all over the country, says Dawn.

The volunteers are "the people that are basically running the service", she says.

Annie interrupts: "But we get a lot out of it ourselves.

"When you hear what some people have been through you think, 'Oh gosh.' It makes you feel more humble."

Frances who, like Annie, joined the service after she gave up working, says: "We get the satisfaction of helping people and doing something useful.

"When I retired I couldn't tolerate just sitting at home."

The Southwark volunteers say some of the celebrity character witnesses for the Yewtree defendants were "absolutely petrified and so we would explain the procedure to them".

Other practical support available for all witnesses includes pre-trial visits to see the inside of a court room and help with expenses forms.

But it stops short of discussing the case itself, which is forbidden.

'Totally frightened'

Things were different before the service was set up 25 years ago.

"People used to be told to report to court and sit outside so they could be sitting next to the defendant, the defendant's family and so on, on the odd occasion," says Frances.

Image caption Southwark Witness Support team members say the fame of defendants makes "no difference whatsoever"

While Southwark is predominantly a fraud court, it also deals with crimes including murders, trafficking and sexual assaults.

Vanessa, who was sexually abused about 10 years ago and whose attacker was found guilty, recently gave evidence at Southwark against her attacker.

The 47-year-old, whose case was not one of the Operation Yewtree trials, was "totally frightened, looking at this big building and knowing that you've got to go in".

"And then when you do actually meet someone from Victim Support, it helps - it helps a lot."

'I'm fine'

Vanessa, who did not want her surname to be used, had not told her relatives much about the crimes.

"To be able to have somebody to sit and listen to you that wasn't somebody you know, my gosh, [it] was much better."

Her volunteer sat with her in court when she gave evidence behind a screen.

"I knew I could turn around and look at that person who's there for me - I'm fine, I'm all right, nobody can hurt me."

She adds: "I was overwhelmed that there was somebody there for me."

Related Topics

More on this story

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites