Is witness intimidation a criminal offence?
Posted on 24th September 2020
Witness intimidation is obviously a criminal offence. The investigation or prosecution of this offence is intended to protect witnesses and / or jurors who are involved in the investigation or trial of criminal offences.
It is therefore understandable that it is treated as a serious offence. It is important to understand that it can cover a wide range of circumstances. These may include a simple request by the suspected person that a victim no longer involves the authorities regarding an incident, up to threats and physical assaults.
Witness intimidation is an offence under section 51 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 and it is split into two parts:
Intimidation of witnesses and jurors
A defendant commits this offence if they:
- do an act which intimidates, and is intended to intimidate, another person (the victim); and does the act knowing or believing that the victim is assisting in the investigation of an offence or is a witness or potential witness or a juror or potential juror in proceedings for an offence; and
- does it intending to cause the investigation or the course of justice to be obstructed, perverted or interfered with.
A potential juror is a member of the public who has been called for jury service at the court which is hearing the case.
There is no legal definition of intimidation but the Cambridge dictionary describes it as ‘the action of frightening or threatening someone, usually in order to persuade them to do something that you want them to do’.
Therefore a defendant must have done an act which:
- actually intimidated the victim (witness/juror/potential juror);
- about an investigation they knew or thought the victim was helping with, or that they knew the victim was a juror or potential juror for; and
- did so intending to interfere, obstruct or pervert the course of justice.
Crucially if 1) and 2) above are proved then a reverse burden of proof applies and it will be assumed the defendant also intended to interfere, obstruct or pervert the course of justice. This means that the onus would be on the defendant to show beyond reasonable doubt that this was not correct.
Revenge against witnesses and jurors
A defendant commits this offence if they:
- do an act which harms, and is intended to harm, another person or, intending to cause another person to fear harm, he threatens to do an act which would harm that other person, and
- does or threatens to do the act knowing or believing that the person harmed or threatened to be harmed (‘the victim’), or some other person, has assisted in an investigation into an offence or has given evidence or particular evidence in proceedings for an offence, or has acted as a juror or concurred in a particular verdict in proceedings for an offence, and
- does or threatens to do the act because of that knowledge or belief.
To commit this version of witness intimidation it must be shown a defendant:
- caused harm to another person or threatened to do so; and
- knew or believed the victim was involved in an investigation or had been a juror; and
- caused the harm or made the threat for that reason.
It is a requirement that the act causes some harm whether it be a physical injury or mental injury. This means for example that spitting alone (although likely a separate offence) would not be sufficient for witness intimidation unless it caused some physical or psychiatric injury. The harm caused can also be financial in nature, or instead to property that does not belong to the defendant.
If within the relevant period it is shown the defendant made the threat or caused harm and they knew the person had been a witness in an investigation, or a juror then it will be presumed that was the reason they caused the harm or made the threat. This is also a reverse burden of proof where it would be on the defendant to show beyond reasonable doubt that this was not correct. The relevant period is one year from the conclusion of any trial or appeal, or one year from the last instance the defendant believed the victim had assisted with an investigation.
Why it is vital to obtain legal advice
Witness intimidation can cover a wide range of conduct such as threats, unwanted contact, approaching or following a victim, talking about a case, and attempts to alter or stop a victim’s evidence.
The intention or motive required for witness intimidation does not need to be the only reason the defendant did the act or made the threat.
The conduct can be carried out by a third party and be made in person, by telephone, via social media or some other form. The offence can also be committed even if not made directly to the victim.
Witness intimidation will normally result in a sentence of imprisonment unless the incident was brief and arose from a chance encounter. The maximum sentences are 6 months in the magistrates’ court and 5 years if the case is heard in the crown court.
It is therefore crucial that a person accused of witness intimidation seeks specialist legal advice at the earliest opportunity. Our experienced team of criminal defence solicitors are widely recognised as one of the leading criminal defence practices in the UK. If you need legal advice you can call us 24 hours a day and 7 days a week on 08448 480 222, or request a call back online.