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Criminal Defence Articles

A Guide to Witness Intimidation Offences in the UK

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Witness intimidation is a serious issue that can have far-reaching consequences for the entire criminal justice process, not just individual trials. Witness intimidation occurs when a witness, victim, or their family members are threatened, harassed, or pressured in an effort to prevent them from giving their side of the story in court or cooperating with the police. When a witness is intimidated, it undermines the integrity of the legal process and can lead to wrongful convictions or acquittals. This is why the offence of witness intimidation is taken so seriously in the UK. In this blog post, we will outline the offence of witness intimidation in the UK, the consequences of this offence (including sentencing), and look at some defences you might be able to rely upon if you are charged with such an offence.

What is a witness intimidation offence?

Witness intimidation is an offence under Section 51 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. What is commonly referred to as a ‘section 51 offence’ is actually two offences:

  1. The first is committed when someone ‘acts against a person who is 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’ under section 51(1); and
  2. the second is committed when someone ‘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’ under section 51(2).

What counts as intimidating a witness?

There are many ways that a person can commit the offence of witness intimidation in the UK. Some examples of witness intimidation include:

  • Threatening a witness or their family members in order to influence their testimony.
  • Harassing a witness or their family members to make them afraid to testify.
  • Damaging the property of a witness or their family members to discourage them from cooperating with the authorities.
  • Bribing a witness to change their testimony.
  • Posting threats or intimidation on social media or other public forums in an effort to influence a witness’s testimony.
  • Sending threatening letters or emails to a witness or their family members
  • Making threatening phone calls to a witness or their family members
  • Following or stalking a witness or their family members to intimidate them.
  • Physically attacking or assaulting a witness or their family members
  • Using graffiti or other forms of vandalism to threaten or intimidate a witness or their family members.
  • Using intimidation or threats to influence a witness’s testimony in a case involving domestic violence or abuse.

Note that witness intimidation can occur in a variety of contexts, including criminal trials, civil proceedings, and broader police investigations.

Who can commit the offence of witness intimidation?

Anyone who threatens or intimidates a witness or their family members in an effort to influence their testimony or cooperation with the authorities can be charged with the offence of witness intimidation. This includes the accused person in a criminal case, their associates, or accomplices, or even strangers who have no connection to the case.

Witness intimidation can be committed by individuals or groups, and it can occur in a variety of contexts. Remember, too, that a person can be charged with witness intimidation even if their actions do not ultimately succeed in preventing a witness from testifying. The mere attempt to intimidate a witness is sufficient to constitute the offence in the UK.

What is the sentence for witness intimidation?  

For a section 51(1) or 51(2) offence under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, you could receive a sentence of up to six months’ imprisonment if convicted in the Magistrates’ Court, or up to 5 years’ custody if convicted in the Crown Court.

As with any crime, these are the maximum sentences for these offences, and the actual sentence will depend on the specific circumstances of the case and the defendant’s criminal history.

How do aggravating and mitigating factors come into play?

When sentencing, judges consider a variety of factors that may either increase (aggravate) or decrease (mitigate) the harshness of the sentence that the convicted person will receive. These factors exist to allow a judge to decide on a more appropriate sentence for the specific circumstances of the case, rather than just imposing sentences blindly.

Some examples of aggravating factors that may be considered in the sentencing process include:

  • The offence was committed while the defendant was on bail or probation.
  • The offence was motivated by hate, prejudice, or discrimination.
  • The defendant has a significant criminal history.
  • The offence was particularly heinous or violent.
  • The victim was vulnerable (particularly young, old, or experiencing a physical or mental disability).

On the other hand, mitigating factors may be considered in order to reduce the severity of the sentence. Some examples of mitigating factors include:

  • The defendant has expressed remorse.
  • The defendant has cooperated with the authorities or provided assistance in the investigation or prosecution.
  • The defendant has taken steps to address the underlying causes of the offence, such as seeking treatment for substance abuse or mental health issues.
  • The defendant has a clean criminal record, or their criminal history is relatively minor.
  • The defendant was acting under some duress or coercion at the time of the offence that did not amount to a full defence, but nonetheless should be considered.

The presence or absence of aggravating or mitigating factors may not be the sole determinant of a sentence, but rather will be considered along with other relevant circumstances and the gravity of the offence. The judge has discretion to determine the appropriate sentence based on the specific circumstances of the case, the offender, and the principles of fairness and proportionality.

What defences are available for the offence of witness intimidation?

There are several defences that may be available to a person charged with witness intimidation. In order for any defence to be successful, the defendant and their legal team must be able to provide sufficient evidence and convincing arguments to support their case. Without that, it will be very difficult to refute the prosecution’s claims and may even result in a harsher sentence in the end.

Possible defences include:

  • Lack of intent: In order to be convicted of witness intimidation, the prosecution must prove – as a basic element of the offence – that the defendant intended to intimidate the witness or their family members. If the defendant did not act with this intent, they may have a defence to the charge.
  • Duress: If the defendant was threatened or coerced into committing the offence of witness intimidation, for example by a powerful gang, they may be able to use the defence of duress. This defence may be available if the defendant reasonably believed that they or someone else would face imminent harm if they did not commit the offence.
  • Mistaken identity or false allegation: If the defendant was wrongly identified as the person who committed the offence of witness intimidation, due to circumstance or false allegation, they may be able to use the defence of mistaken identity.
  • Insanity: If the defendant was suffering from a mental disorder at the time of the offence, they may be able to use the defence of insanity. Note, however, that if insanity is proven, there will likely be consequences (e.g. sectioning) under the Mental Health Act of 1983.
  • Automatism: If the defendant was not aware of their actions at the time of the offence due to a mental disorder or other involuntary cause, they may be able to use the defence of automatism.

It is important to note that these are just a few examples of the potential defences that may be available to a person charged with witness intimidation. The specific defences that are available will depend on the circumstances of the case and the judgement of a criminal defence solicitor as to the likelihood of success of each option.

Where to get more help with witness intimidation charges?

If you or someone you care about is facing a potential charge – or has already been charged – with a witness intimidation offence, it is crucial you secure legal representation as soon as possible to prevent any further allegations of intimidation while you are going about your day-to-day life. Having to restrict your activities is never a nice thing to do, especially when you haven’t done anything wrong, but by changing certain behaviours or altering simple habits (for example, changing the route you drive to work in the morning), you can avoid compounding any allegations against you.

For more information on how to proceed, contact the experts at Stuart Miller Solicitors today. Our friendly and non-judgemental team is waiting for your call.

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