Be prepared? – the perils of witness training

In two recent cases, one in the Commercial Court and one in the Technology and Construction Court, judges have deprecated the use of witness preparation even where the training falls short of witness coaching.

Witness coaching is prohibited by the Bar Code of Conduct[1], which states that ‘Your duty to act with honesty and integrity under CD3 includes the following requirements… you must not rehearse, practise with or coach a witness in respect of their evidence[2]. CD3, one of the Core Duties imposed on barristers by the Code of Conduct, is that: ‘You must act with honesty and integrity’.

Coaching’ is not defined in the Code of Conduct, but the Bar Council practice note on Witness Preparation[3] says:

In any discussions with witnesses regarding the process of giving evidence, great care must be taken not to do or say anything which could be interpreted as suggesting what the witness should say, or how he or she should express himself or herself in the witness box: that would be coaching.[4]

This Bar Council practice note draws heavily on the 2005 decision of the Court of Appeal in R v Momodou[5] and states[6] that there is currently no authority on these matters in relation to civil proceedings, and that until such authority emerges, it would be prudent to proceed on the basis that the general principles set out in R v Momodou also apply to civil proceedings.

In R v Momodou, the Court of Appeal made clear that discussion with a witness of his or her proposed or intended evidence in a criminal case was not permitted:

Training or coaching for witnesses in criminal proceedings (whether for prosecution or defence) is not permitted. This is the logical consequence of [the] well-known principle that discussions between witnesses should not take place, and that the statements and proofs of one witness should not be disclosed to any other witness. … The witness should give his or her own evidence, so far as practicable uninfluenced by what anyone else has said, whether in formal discussions or informal conversations. The rule reduces, indeed hopefully avoids any possibility, that one witness may tailor his evidence in the light of what anyone else said, and equally, avoids any unfounded perception that he may have done so. These risks are inherent in witness training.[7]

The Court of Appeal said that there was a ‘dramatic distinction’ between witness training or coaching, and witness familiarisation.[8] Witness familiarisation is:

pre-trial arrangements to familiarise witness with the layout of the court, the likely sequence of events when the witness is giving evidence, and a balanced appraisal of the different responsibilities of the various participants’,[9]

and the Court of Appeal added that such arrangements would usually be in the form of a pre-trial visit to the court, and were generally to be welcomed, but that out of court familiarisation techniques were also permissible. It emphasised, however that ‘None of this … involves discussions about proposed or intended evidence’.[10]

The Court of Appeal also addressed specifically the position of expert witnesses, saying that training of such witnesses in ‘the technique of giving comprehensive evidence of a specialist kind to a jury, both during evidence-in-chief and in cross-examination, and, another example, developing the ability to resist the inevitable pressure of going further in evidence than matters covered by the witnesses’ specific expertise’. As with witnesses of fact, ‘The critical feature of training of this kind is that it should not be arranged in the context of nor related to any forthcoming trial, and it can therefore have no impact whatever on it.’[11]

Guidance in the Bar Code of Conduct in a related but different context (the duty not to mislead the court) refers to the preparation of witness statements, and states that:

you are entitled and it may often be appropriate to draw to the witness’s attention other evidence which appears to conflict with what the witness is saying and you are entitled to indicate that a court may find a particular piece of evidence difficult to accept. But if the witness maintains that the evidence is true, it should be recorded in the witness statement and you will not be misleading the court if you call the witness to confirm their witness statement.’[12]

The reference to witness statements makes clear that this guidance relates to civil rather than criminal proceedings. It is not addressed in the Bar Council practice note, which as we have seen indicates that, in the absence of authority, it would be prudent to proceed on the basis that the general principles set out in R v Momodou also apply to civil proceedings. There is therefore an inconsistency between the Code of Conduct guidance and the clear statement in R v Momidou that ‘the statements and proofs of one witness should not be disclosed to any other witness’. This inconsistency is not explicable by the difference in procedure, as witness statements in civil proceedings simply take the place of oral evidence in chief: the process of taking the statement is merely the mechanism by which the evidence is put before the court, and there is no difference of principle. The extent to which the practice referred to in the Code of Conduct guidance will be regarded by the civil courts as permissible has yet to be determined, but there is no doubt that, given the clear statement in the guidance, it is acceptable from a regulatory perspective as far as barristers are concerned.

This is the legal and regulatory background against which judges in two recent commercial cases have deprecated the use of witness preparation even where such training falls short of witness coaching. Flaux J said in the Commercial Court in Republic of Djibouti v Boreh:[13]

The second reason for approaching the evidence of the Djibouti witnesses with considerable caution is that it was quite obvious that they had had witness training and been carefully prepared for giving evidence. Mr Douale admitted as much.[14]

And:

Whilst I am not suggesting that witness training in itself is improper, (provided that it does not amount to coaching of a witness as to what to say, which would be improper) it is to be discouraged, since, as this case demonstrates, it tends to reflect badly on the witness who, perhaps through no fault of his or her own, may appear evasive because he or she has been “trained” to give evidence in a particular way.’[15]

Last month, in Harlequin Property (SVG) Ltd v Wilkins Kennedy[16] in the Technology and Construction Court, Coulson J referred to Flaux J’s remarks with approval:

I was unsurprised to learn that Mr MacDonald had had witness training. For the same reasons outlined by Flaux J (as he then was) in Republic of Djibouti v Boreh … I consider it to be a practice “to be discouraged since…it tends to reflect badly on the witnesses who…may appear evasive.” In my view, the training he received exacerbated Mr MacDonald’s natural tendency to avoid answering any difficult question.’[17]

We can expect commercial judges to continue to criticise attempts to refine the evidence which is to be given by witnesses in court. Judges want, so far as possible, to hear a witness’s evidence in his or her own words. The 2007 Report of the Commercial Court Long Trials Working Party, in which two Commercial Court judges[18] were heavily involved, said:

Inevitably, in nearly all cases the witness statements are drafted by the lawyers, although based on interviews with the witness. But this process often leads to the statements being in lawyers’ language rather than the words of the witness. Also, all too frequently the statements spend far too long summarising documents that a party wishes to have in evidence and arguing the case. Not enough time is spent recording the witness’s actual memories of relevant events.[19]

The Admiralty and Commercial Courts guide[20] similarly emphasises that the function of a witness statement is to set out in writing the evidence in chief of the witness and that as far as possible, therefore, the statement should be in the witness’s own words; that it should not contain lengthy quotations from documents; and that it should not engage in argument.[21]

  1. The Code of Conduct is in Part 2 of the BSB Handbook (2nd Edition, April 2015, updated December 2016).
  2. Rule rC9.4. There is no specific prohibition in the solicitors’ Code of Conduct (Version 18, published 1 November 2016): see Chapter 5, ‘Your client and the court’, including IB(5.9) to IB(5.11); and see this interesting article by Professor Richard Moorhead in the Guardian in relation to David Cameron’s preparation for his appearance before the Leveson inquiry in 2012.
  3. Issued October 2005; last reviewed May 2016. Practice notes issued by the Bar Council do not constitute ‘guidance’ for the purposes of the Code of Conduct: see further paragraph I6.4 of the Handbook (pages 11-12 of the pdf version).
  4. At para 17.2.
  5. [2005] EWCA Crim 177.
  6. At para 16.
  7. At para 61.
  8. At para 61.
  9. At para 62.
  10. At para 62.
  11. At para 62.
  12. Code of Conduct, para gC7.
  13. [2016] EWHC 405 (Comm).
  14. At para 65.
  15. At para 67.
  16. [2016] EWHC 3188 (TCC).
  17. At para 18.
  18. Aikens and Gloster JJ; Aikens J chaired the working party which prepared the report; I was its secretary.
  19. At para 69.
  20. Last updated 18 March 2016.
  21. See paras H1.1(i), (iii) and (v)),