A: Coaching or rehearsing witnesses, that is telling them what to say or even suggesting what they should say when giving evidence, is not permitted in the UK. However, the Court of Appeal in R v Momodou has said that pre-trial arrangements to familiarise witnesses are generally to be welcomed, and it permits of sensible preparation for the experience of giving evidence, to assist the witness to give of his or her best at the hearing. Guidance published by the Bar Standards Board, the professional body which regulates barristers, permits mock ‘cross-examination’ practice for the purpose of giving a witness greater familiarity with and confidence in in the process of giving oral evidence
Q: What exactly is witness familiarisation training?
A: There are different types of witness training, but all of them aim to give witnesses a thorough understanding of the process that they are about to take part in. At its most basic witness familiarisation will explain the layout of the court or tribunal or other room where the hearing will take place, the correct way to address the judge or panel and the likely sequence of events. It may also provide some guidance on how best to give evidence.
More sophisticated witness training includes a demonstration of effective evidence giving.
The most effective witness training incorporates expert communication theory and techniques to help witnesses communicate their evidence as effectively as possible.
Q: Can witness familiarisation include cross-examination practice?
A: Yes it can, and should. Giving evidence is not like an interview, still less is it a conversation. Witnesses need to practise answering difficult questions. Witness training is an opportunity to do so in a safe learning environment.
The only restriction on cross-examination practice is that it must not have anything to do with the evidence that the witness is to give. To avoid any possibility or even suggestion of improper coaching, none of those involved in the witness training should have any involvement in the case. That includes the solicitors and barristers.
Q: So what do you cross-examine witnesses about, if not the evidence they are about to give?
A:Some witness training providers use role-play scenarios that participants have to prepare in advance. We do not think this is a particularly effective way to practise cross-examination. Busy witnesses might not take the time to properly prepare, and more importantly they have no real interest in the subject matter of the cross-examination exercise. We cross-examine witnesses on topics that really matter to them, but which require little or no preparation. We find that this best replicates the experience of giving evidence for real.
Q: what sort of proceeding is witness training good for?
A:Witness training is invaluable whenever an individual is facing difficult questions – in any kind of court, trial or tribunal hearing but also in an arbitration, a regulatory investigation or professional conduct hearing (for example an FCA compelled interview) or public inquiry.
Q: How far in advance should witness training take place?
A: Witness training is extremely valuable whenever it takes place, even if just before the trial or hearing. However it is most beneficial when done two to three weeks beforehand. This gives witnesses time to properly take on what they have learned during the training and to practice some of the communications techniques that we teach.
Q: How long does witness training take?
A: This is very much up to the individual witness. The shortest Assurety course lasts 2 hours but if required we can spend a full day with a single witness. This may sound excessive but remember when giving evidence for real witnesses can be ‘in the box’ for a number of days. It helps to experience what that can feel like in a safe learning environment. Witness training is often done one-to-one but can also be done in small group sessions of four to six people.
Q: Where does witness training take place?
A: Training can be delivered in any location. All we require is a reasonable-sized room so that we can recreate a court or tribunal setting for the cross-examination practice.
Q: Can you train witnesses based overseas, or giving evidence overseas?
A: Yes. We regularly travel overseas to deliver training for witnesses who are about to give evidence in the UK. We also train those involved in legal proceedings overseas, particularly in international arbitrations.
Q: What if the witness does not speak English as a first language?
A: If the witness is due to give evidence in English that is all the more reason for them to have familiarisation training. Witnesses who do not speak English as a first language are more likely to feel anxious about giving evidence in an unfamiliar setting. They will also need to know how to communicate their evidence as effectively as possible.
If a witness is due to give evidence through an interpreter we can arrange to deliver familiarisation training using an interpreter. The aim is to give witnesses an experience that comes as close possible to giving evidence for real.
Q: Why use Assurety?
A: Assurety is owned and run by three practising barristers with over 60 years’ experience. We are all regularly in court and have a real understanding of the process of giving evidence. We use only senior, very experienced and highly regarded barristers to deliver our courses. We are the only witness training provider to incorporate cutting-edge communications theory and techniques into our courses to ensure that witnesses are able to communicate their evidence to the best of their ability.
All of those who have attended our courses report feeling much more relaxed and confident about the prospect of giving evidence and thoroughly prepared for what lies ahead.