Bar may extend contact with witnesses

BARRISTERS will have the chance to do more pre-trial preparation work if new rules allowing greater contact with witnesses in the civil field are approved.

The Bar Council is to consider the proposed rule change, which will allow counsel to draw up proofs of evidence with witnesses, at its meeting on Saturday.

The proposals are a result of negotiations between the Bar Council and the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Committee on Legal Education and Conduct (Aclec) over regulations for barrister-witness contact.

The council first announced changes to its rules in this area in May last year when the then chair Peter Goldsmith QC said the old rules barring contact gave the impression that barristers were “aloof and uncaring”.

Under the change barristers were encouraged to introduce themselves to witnesses and explain court procedures.

But in October the Bar clashed with Aclec over its decision to use waiver powers to allow it to adopt the change before seeking a formal amendment to its code of conduct under the terms of the Courts and Legal Services Act.

Although it has resisted Aclec's calls for the waiver to be rescinded, the Bar Council says it has taken on board the committee's view that the relaxation of witness rules should go further in the civil field.

Professional standards committee chair Jonathan Hirst QC said it was important to continue to limit barrister-witness contact in criminal cases to ensure barristers were not accused of coaching witnesses.

But he said it was possible to go further in the civil field, a move he hoped would send more work to the junior Bar.

“If the rules are passed they will allow counsel to take proofs of evidence from witnesses, although careful judgement will still be required.”

An Aclec spokeswoman said the committee was awaiting the new proposals with interest.