England: New CPS guidelines to change how courts treat victims and witnesses
New guidelines put out to consultation today by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) will radically change how victims and witnesses are treated in the courts.
The consultation comes in the wake of suicides linked to rape trials.
Tracy Shelvey, killed herself a few days after a man was cleared of raping her. In response the police called for “root and branch” change to the way the courts deal with vulnerable witnesses.
Frances Andrade killed herself in 2013 following the trial of Michael Brewer, a choirmaster.
Alison Saunders, director of public prosecutions, said the new guidelines would benefit not just witnesses in sexual abuse trials.
She said: “The law is not a game and the court process is not about ambushing the witness.
“Some people might think these guidelines go too far, but I don’t. They are intended to help witnesses give their best evidence and make sure that everyone has their rights acknowledged. We have not had guidance like this before and it is overdue.”
The proposals, open to an eight-week consultation, would mean that victims and witnesses would know more about the case before giving evidence.
Among other things, the guidance proposes that prosecutors inform witnesses of the general nature of the defence’s case in circumstances where it is known.
It also calls for witnesses to be informed of the fact that third-party material disclosed to the defence may undermine the prosecution case.
Witnesses were previously left to find out what they would likely face on the day they attended court.
Ms Saunders said: “Asking someone to come to court without any idea of what they face in the witness box does not seem fair to me.
“To stand up in a formal setting and to be asked 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 that some people will see these proposals as a radical change.
“And that’s why I am seeking views from far and wide.”
Baroness Newlove, the victims’ commissioner, said: “Most victims and witnesses don’t know what to expect from a courtroom until it is 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.
“I’ve always been clear that there should be better CPS policy on pre-trial assistance and more information on what support is available.
“That’s why I’m pleased to see Alison Saunders has listened to victims and taken these very positive steps by setting out these guidelines.”