Witness compulsion ruled out

Ministers to focus on accessibility of courts
Ministers to focus on accessibility of courts

The Government has decided not to move ahead with plans to compel witnesses to attend court after strong representations from the legal profession.

In an October 2003 consultation paper the Home Office had suggested that witness orders (which were abolished in March 1997) could be reintroduced to compel reluctant witnesses to attend court.

Non-attendance of witnesses is the most common reason for trials being 'ineffective' i.e. not being able to proceed on the scheduled day, with 22 per cent of all Crown Court trials rescheduled for this reason.

However, in response to concerns expressed by those in legal and related professions the idea of reintroducing witness orders has been dropped. Instead the Home Office will focus on support for witnesses.

Respondents had been concerned that a reintroduction of witness orders would undermine efforts to engage witnesses in the criminal justice system.

It was suggested instead that more effective use should be made of witness summonses, which can be issued if the court is satisfied that the witness is likely to be able to give or produce material evidence and that he or she will not do so voluntarily.

Currently, they can only be issued if there is 'substantive evidence' to show a witness will not voluntarily attend - which can mean that the order is only issued after a witness has failed to attend.

In the new Serious Organised Crime and Policing Bill the Government has amended the requirements to make it easier to obtain a summons before the trial begins so as to pre-empt the possibility of non-attendance. The new test will require that it is in the "interest of justice" to do so.

Announcing the change, Home Office Minister Baroness Scotland said: "The contribution of witnesses is key to the entire effectiveness of the criminal justice system. In each case where a witness disengages and fails to give evidence, there is a risk that the trial will collapse, that a victim's suffering will be made worse and that public confidence in the system will be undermined."

Chris Leslie, Courts Minister for the Department for Constitutional Affairs, stressed that the Government was committed to making it more comfortable for individuals to attend court, pointing to recent measures such as the introduction of video links for vulnerable and intimidated witnesses.

A spokesperson for the Law Society told poltics.co.uk that they fully supported the Government's decision not to go down the compulsion route and backed an increased focus on witness support.