The general rule is that anyone who is competent can be compelled (forced) to give evidence in a criminal or civil case. You are considered to be a competent witness if you are capable of giving admissible or allowable evidence in a court. In civil proceedings the court may give anonymity to a witness where the witness has a medical condition and being identified as having that condition would cause undue stress to the witness.
There are a number of circumstances, however, where you cannot be forced to attend and give evidence.
If you are the accused in a criminal case you do not have to give evidence in your own defence. If you decide not to give evidence in the case, that fact cannot be commented upon by the prosecution to the jury.
If you do opt to give evidence in your trial, you may then be cross-examined by the prosecution and you cannot refuse to answer any question on the grounds that it may incriminate you. However, the prosecution may not ask you questions about your previous bad character unless you have:
You cannot be forced to give evidence by the prosecution in their efforts to convict you. You also cannot be compelled to give evidence against a co-accused where you are both being tried in the same proceedings. However, if the prosecution refuses to offer any evidence against you and you are acquitted, then you can be compelled to testify against a co-accused.
Under Part 4 of the Criminal Evidence Act 1992, if you are the spouse of the accused you are competent to give evidence for either the defence or the prosecution (unless you happen to be a co-accused). However, you may only be compelled or forced to testify for the prosecution against the accused if:
A former spouse is a person who has either got a decree of divorce or judicial separation or who has a separation agreement with the accused. If you are a former spouse you are considered competent and may be forced to testify for the defence or the prosecution.
However, you cannot be compelled or forced to give evidence against the accused in relation to offences committed while the marriage was still ongoing unless:
Diplomatic agents are competent and may give evidence, but they are not obliged to give evidence as witnesses in either criminal or civil proceedings. This means that they cannot be compelled or forced to give evidence in any case.
For more detailed information you should seek legal advice.
If you have a question relating to this topic you can contact the Citizens Information Phone Service on 0761 07 4000. The Phone Service will operate Monday to Friday, 9am to 6pm during January 2017. You can also visit your local Citizens Information Centre.