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Plans aim to stop trial 'ambush'

Witnesses and alleged victims of crime should be warned when defence barristers are set to confront them over their sexual history or previous bad character, according to proposals put forward by the country's top prosecutor.

Alison Saunders, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), has put out proposed guidance for prosecutors on the approach to witnesses or alleged victims giving evidence during the trial process at court to prevent them from being "ambushed".

The updated guidelines follow a number of high-profile cases in which witnesses or alleged victims have suffered during or after the trial process, such as celebrity cook Nigella Lawson, who described her experience as a witness in the trial of her ex-husband Charles Saatchi's personal assistants as "mortifying".

A key section of the guidelines expected to trigger debate among members of the criminal bar covers the process of cross-examination as questions have been raised about the dangers of crossing the line into "coaching" witnesses and alleged victims - a practice that is forbidden.

It states prosecutors should be able to tell witnesses and alleged victims the general nature of the defence case, as well as where third party material about a particular witness or alleged victim has been disclosed to the defence as being capable of undermining the prosecution's case.

They should also be informed when permission has been granted to question them on aspects of "bad character" or "sexual history", according to the guidelines.

"It struck me more and more actually that on our side of the fence we chose to be in the criminal justice system, we know what to expect," Ms Saunders said.

"They (alleged victims and witnesses) did not choose to be in the criminal justice system. They are all here for some dramatic event that happened to them. They have very little idea as to what will happen to them."

She added: "It doesn't really help confidence in the criminal justice system when victims and witnesses will say 'I wouldn't want to go through that again.'"

The DPP said the guidelines would help give prosecutors " confidence" to engage with victims and witnesses without fear of any allegations of coaching or going too far.

"It's about testing their evidence but it's not about putting them on trial - they should remember that," Ms Saunders added. "There's no reason why witnesses should be ambushed."

Self-styled "domestic goddess" Ms Lawson said, despite doing her civic duty, she was ''maliciously vilified without the right to respond'' during the trial, which heard details of her cocaine use and acrimonious split with Mr Saatchi.

Other cases include the tragic death of Frances Andrade, 48, who was found dead at her home in Guildford, Surrey, a week after testifying in the sex abuse trial of ex-choirmaster Michael Brewer.

The DPP's guidance, which will be put out for consultation for eight weeks, also states that prosecutors should e xplain court procedure, including the oath taking and order of questions, e ncourage witnesses to ask the advocate or judge to repeat or rephrase questions and remind witnesses to refresh their memory by asking to see their witness statement.

Victims' Commissioner Baroness Newlove, whose husband Garry was killed in August 2007 after he confronted a group outside his house, 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."

Attorney General Jeremy Wright said: "Anyone who has gone through the ordeal of a court trial, especially victims 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."


From Belfast Telegraph