Trial witnesses will have to be told of the ‘general nature’ of the defence case and warned if their own character is to be questioned in court if guidelines published today by the director of public prosecutions are implemented.

The guidelines, published for public consultation today, set out ways of ensuring that witnesses know what to expect in court, including the general line of questions they are likely to face. 

Among other safeguards, prosecutors will be required to:

  • Inform witnesses about the general nature of the defence case where known, including the fact that third-party material has been disclosed to the defence which is capable of undermining the prosecution case; 
  • Warn witnesses if leave has been granted to the defence to cross-examine them on bad character or sexual history;
  • Introduce themselves to witnesses and explain their role and explain court procedure, including the oath taking and the order of the questions from various parties;
  • Encourage witnesses to ask the advocate or judge to repeat or rephrase any questions they do not understand and to ask for a break from questioning should they need one to restore concentration or compose themselves emotionally.

The DPP stressed that the principles would apply to all prosecutors, whether from the Crown Prosecution Service or from the self-employed bar. The guidance also applies to witnesses who give evidence via a remote link.

Alison Saunders (pictured), director of public prosecutions, 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 – and I know from talking to victims that it is often not knowing what they will face that is most daunting.

‘This guidance seeks to improve our support to victims through this process and they will give prosecutors confidence to do so without fear of allegations of coaching.’

The guidance was welcomed by the victims’ commissioner, Baroness Newlove and the independent charity Victim Support.