Alison Saunders, the Director of Public Prosecutions, has published a major consultation on the approach to ensuring crime victims are properly assisted for the trial process at court and has also called for an overhaul of the service provided to witnesses to ensure that they are able to give the best possible evidence. The new proposals are subject to an eight-week public consultation.
The new proposals outline for the first time the need to better assist victims and witnesses so that they know more about what to expect before they give evidence. If implemented, the guidance will ensure victims are, for example, informed of the general nature of the defence case or if their own character is to be questioned when standing in the witness box.
The new DPP guidance makes it absolutely clear that assisting witnesses in this way is not coaching or telling them what to say.
Speaking about the new proposals, Alison Saunders commented: “Asking someone to come to court without any idea of what they face in the witness box doesn’t seem fair to me. To stand up in a formal setting and be asked what are sometimes difficult and personal questions in front of a court full of strangers is a very big ask. In coming to court to give evidence, victims and witnesses are performing an important public service and I think we can assist them better. I know from talking to victims of crime that it’s often not knowing what they will face that’s the most daunting element of the whole process. This guidance seeks to improve our support to victims through this process and will give prosecutors confidence without fear of allegations of coaching.”
Importantly, Saunders added: “I know that some people will see these proposals as a radical change and that’s why I’m seeking views on our plans from far and wide.”
Specific instruction for prosecutors
The Director of Public Prosecutions’ (DPP) proposed guidance reassures prosecutors that they can tell victims more of what is likely to happen at court.
Specifically, the guidance will instruct prosecutors (both in-house from the Crown Prosecution Service and from the self-employed bar) to:
*Inform witnesses about the general nature of the defence case where known (eg mistaken identification, consent, self-defence, lack of intent)
*Inform witnesses of the fact that third party material has been disclosed to the defence which is capable of undermining the prosecution case (eg social services, medical or counselling records)
*Inform witnesses if leave has been granted to the defence to cross-examine them on, say, matters like bad character
*Introduce themselves to witnesses and explain their role
*Explain court procedures (including the oath taking and the order of questions from various parties)
*Encourage witnesses to ask the Advocate or presiding Judge to repeat or rephrase the question should they not understand
*Remind witnesses that if they cannot recall an answer to a particular question then they should not be afraid to say so
*Encourage witnesses to refresh their memory by asking to see their witness statement and go through it before answering questions in court
*Explain the role of defence advocates and encourage witnesses to say clearly whether they agree or disagree with any suggestion put to them
*Encourage witnesses to ask for a break from questioning should they genuinely need one in order to restore concentration or compose themselves from an emotional perspective
Previously, witnesses in court have been largely left to find out what they are likely to face on the day they go to court. The new guidance states that going to court is not a ‘memory game’ and being unable to recall every minor detail isn’t a sign of weakness.
These proposals are very much aimed at putting witnesses at ease and to help them give their best evidence which is in everyone’s interest.
Alison Saunders continued: “Cross-examination within our legal system is designed to cast doubt on the prosecution’s version of events. It’s a vital part of the process and all of us in the criminal justice system are committed to making the process fair for the defendant because it’s their liberty and reputation at stake. I do think that we can make the courts fairer for victims and witnesses while at the same time maintaining the vital balance which ensures fair trials for those in the dock. These proposals allow us to give more support to one side without taking away the right to a fair trial for the other.”
In conclusion, Saunders stated: “The issue of how we can better support victims is one that I have been considering since I became Director of Public Prosecutions over a year ago. I now want to hear on this matter from colleagues across the criminal justice system and members of the public. Being called to give evidence can happen to anyone. I’m convinced that we owe it to those who are willing to come to court to help them as much as we can.”
Highly intimidating situation to be confronted
Victims’ Commissioner Baroness Helen Newlove explained: “Most victims and witnesses don’t know what to expect from a courtroom until it’s too late. They are thrown into a highly intimidating situation through no fault of their own and then left with little or no explanation to help them through it.”
Baroness Newlove added: “I’ve always been clear that there should be better CPS policy on pre-trial assistance and more information on what support is available. Thats why I’m pleased to see Alison Saunders has listened to victims and taken very positive steps by setting out these guidelines. I hope they will enable prosecutors to fully inform victims and witnesses in the right way and help strengthen victims’ confidence in the criminal justice system.”
Mark Castle, CEO of the independent charity Victim Support, has also spoken about the DPP’s proposals. “As a charity that supports hundreds of thousands of victims and witnesses every year,” said Castle, “we know how often giving evidence in court can be an intimidating experience for the individuals concerned. This is why our specialist Witness Service guides victims and witnesses through the court processes.”
Castle went on to comment: “We’ve long campaigned for improvements to the way in which the criminal justice system treats victims and witnesses so we very much welcome this DPP consultation on measures that could do just that. Victims and witnesses should know what to expect when they are asked to testify in a criminal case and also know what their rights are as a witness. We will be responding to the consultation in due course, in turn drawing on Victim Support’s 40 years of expertise.”
Welcoming the CPS guidance plans, the Attorney General Jeremy Wright QC MP noted: “Anyone who has gone through the ordeal of a court trial, especially those victims of crime who are called to give evidence as a witness, knows how daunting the process can be. This guidance will help witnesses understand what they can expect when they are in court and also explain the process for what happens next. I’m very pleased this guidance is subject to an open consultation involving members of the public. The DPP has already written to me to ask for my feedback and I’ll be providing her with my thoughts. I encourage members of the public, notably those who have been through the experience of being in court as a witness, to share their views and, ultimately, help make the system better.”