Samantha Fairclough shares with Behind the Scenes at BLS how questioning the treatment of vulnerable witnesses as a law student has informed her research projects as a Lecturer in Law.
I have been involved in the study of law since I started as a fresh-faced first year Law with Criminology student at the University of Manchester in September 2009. I particularly enjoyed modules on the programme relating to crime and criminal justice. I had no idea what to do after University. I thought about working towards practising law as a criminal barrister, but what really made me passionate was thinking beyond what the law ‘is’ or what the law ‘says’ to consider how the law could be better. This was especially apparent to me following a brief overview in a final year criminal evidence lecture about how vulnerable witnesses are supported vis-à-vis vulnerable defendants. This really piqued my interest – I wondered how it could be justified that we provide vulnerable witnesses and complainants with additional support and different ways to give evidence, but that we exclude the accused from such adaptations?
This question formed the basis of the enquiry that I carried out for my PhD, which is funny, because when I first asked myself this question I didn’t even know what a PhD was. I was the first in my family to go to University, so a regular degree programme was a pretty alien phenomenon to me in itself, never mind the existence of postgraduate research. With the support of some excellent academics (whom I now consider to be friends) I pursued my PhD project here at Birmingham Law School. As part of it, I interviewed criminal barristers and solicitors to gain an insight into their experiences of how the law in this area operates, and to consider the ways in which it ought to be rethought to more equitably support vulnerable participants to give evidence in criminal trials. It was the empirical component that I enjoyed the most, and linking this together with important theories and concepts such as equality, humane treatment, justice and the right to a fair trial.
Completing my PhD, and subsequent research projects, confirms to me the importance of checking-in on how the law actually operates in practice. It is one thing to create ‘perfect’ laws, which on their face abide by the principles that we hold dear. But how does this translate into practice? What other support is needed in the legal system to protect the rights of vulnerable individuals? It is this contrast between the ‘law in books’ and ‘the law in action’, and its importance to the lived realities of individuals compelled to partake in adversarial criminal trials, which continues to drive my research agenda.