Radical change in the court room?

CPS consult on new approach to make sure people are properly prepared to give evidence in court

Elisabeth DaviesThis week we’ve welcomed the news that the Director of Public Prosecutions is consulting on providing greater assistance to victims giving evidence at court. The consultation sets out for the first time the need to better assist victims and witnesses so they know more about what to expect before they give evidence. It aims to ensure that witnesses are better informed and prepared before they go to court with the hope that they should feel more comfortable about giving evidence and be able to give their best.

For me, this particularly resonates with the Panel’s work for a number of reasons. Firstly, because of the focus on vulnerability. If the guidance just considered those who are already defined as vulnerable – for example making sure that any witnesses identified as vulnerable are considered for a pre-trial special measures meeting – then that would be one thing. But it goes much further than this. It also acknowledges the significant imbalance that exists between advocates, for whom the court room is their place of work, and victims and witnesses, for whom it may be an unfamiliar and unsettling place. This goes to the heart of a recognising how the court room can make anyone feel vulnerable and chimes with our recent guide to help regulators recognise and respond to vulnerable consumers in legal services.

Our guide recognises that vulnerability is dynamic, can be due to the characteristics of the market, the particular circumstances of the individual consumer, or a combination of the two. It recognises that the way legal services operate can cause or contribute to consumer vulnerability and place consumers at a disadvantage in accessing products and services and in seeking redress.

Interestingly the Director of Public Prosecutions Alison Saunders warns: “I know that some people will see these proposals as a radical change and that’s why I am seeking views from far and wide.” It’s fascinating that the notion that witnesses in a court room need additional support and are vulnerable could be considered radical.

Which takes me to the second reason why this report chimes with the Panel’s current work. There are others who are in a court room, and who may be in unfamiliar circumstances, and who are vulnerable because of the imbalance between advocate and non-advocate, and who should be enabled and supported to give their best. And these are litigants in person. If we are acknowledging that the court room creates new vulnerabilities for witnesses then we must surely do the same for litigants in person. In acknowledging this further issues are raised about the intention, scale and viability of the support strategies needed. Pro bono and volunteer-led support are vital and impressive but they may only go so far. Perhaps some radical changes and solutions are needed here as well?