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The Work of Precognition Agents in Criminal Cases - Research Findings

DescriptionThis small exploratory study looked at precognition agents' work in interviewing prosecution witnesses on behalf of the defence in one Scottish city.
Official Print Publication Date
Website Publication DateNovember 03, 1999

Crime and Criminal Justice Research Findings No. 32
The Work of Precognition Agents in Criminal Cases

David J Christie and Susan R Moody
University of Dundee

This small exploratory study looked at precognition agents' work in interviewing prosecution witnesses on behalf of the defence in one Scottish city. The aims of the research were to identify models of good practice for precognition work; locate any gaps in the preparation, training and guidance of precognition agents; and consider whether greater regulation of precognition agents is desirable and workable.

Main Findings

  • The vetting of precognition agents prior to recruitment appears to be highly informal and sporadic.
  • None of the thirteen respondent solicitors had carried out a criminal record check prior to selecting a precognition agent.
  • The training of precognition agents appears to be highly informal. Many precognition agents are ex-police officers and solicitors may assume that these precognition agents in particular do not require additional training.
  • Most of the precognition agents who were interviewed believed that they would benefit from more training, especially on interviewing vulnerable and difficult witnesses.
  • Solicitors and precognition agents wanted more information from the Crown about cases, including contact telephone numbers and on which charges witnesses were speaking.
  • There was support for the idea of the Crown providing a summary of its evidence.
  • The majority of witnesses who were interviewed did not think that they had been treated well by the precognition process and all but two of the nine witnesses in the sample made a complaint about it. Most witnesses wanted information beforehand about what the precognition agent was there to do.

Limitations of the Research

This project looked at the work of precognition agents in criminal cases. The research was limited to one Scottish city, and was compiled through questionnaires and interviews. The project may be seen as a small-scale pilot study which could either provide a limited snapshot of precognition taking or pave the way for more extensive research into this area.

The project was conducted in 1998 and was limited in its aims, relying on small samples taken from a restricted geographical area. The research findings were based on the contributions of thirteen solicitors, fifteen precognition agents and nine witnesses. In this research, all the precognition takers were non-solicitors. The views and experiences which have been reported are not, therefore, necessarily representative.

What is a Precognition?

A precognition is a statement taken from a witness to a crime before the case goes to trial. It is different from other witness statements because it cannot be put to the witness at the trial. Precognitions may be taken by the prosecution and by the defence and usually involve a face to face interview between the witness and the precognition taker. The precognition taker can be the defence solicitor, an employee or someone contracted to take the precognition.

Why are Precognitions Important?

  • The precognition of witnesses by the defence is an important feature of the Scottish criminal process. Although the Crown's case is disclosed in the charge (which states the date, location and nature of the alleged crime) it is through the process of precognition of Crown witnesses, that the defence is made aware of the strength of the Crown's case. Armed with the information contained in the precognitions, the defence can offer clients full advice on their position and prepare cases for trial if necessary.
  • Precognition taking is a distinctive feature of the Scottish system. In most other jurisdictions, including England and Wales, there is disclosure of the Crown's case which virtually removes the need for independent investigation by the defence.
  • The practice of precognition taking costs the taxpayer between £20 million and £27 million each year.

Who are Precognition Agents?

Most precognition agents in the sample were between 25 and 50, and either ex-police officers or law students. Just under half worked full-time as precognition agents and all but one had more than 12 months experience. Almost all were self employed, earning between £4 and £8 an hour. None of them were solicitors.

Vetting and Training

None of the solicitors interviewed carried out a criminal record check on prospective precognition agents. Only a minority interviewed applicants before selecting them. No other forms of assessment were used except word of mouth recommendations. A small minority of solicitors provided training, which was generally 'on the job'.

Taking Precognitions

In most cases all the Crown witnesses will be precognosced by the defence. The majority of solicitors send a letter to the witness, who is then contacted by the precognition agent. However, in some cases visits are made unannounced to the witness's home.

Precognition agents are not usually given specific instructions and there are no procedural requirements governing precognition taking. Most precognition agents felt that they should test the witness's credibility. Those who were interviewed found the most difficult part of the job to be tracing witnesses but considered that most witnesses were co-operative.

Are Vulnerable Witnesses Treated Differently?

Precognition agents said that there were problems in identifying vulnerable witnesses. Apart from children who were usually precognosced only with their parents present, no special arrangements were generally made.

Were Witnesses Satisfied with the Precognition Taking?

Witnesses in the sample differed in their perceptions of precognition taking. Some found it satisfactory, others were confused and a few were angry because they did not want to 'help the defence'.

Suggestions for Improvements

Precognition Agents

  • Better vetting procedures
  • Training on and off the job
  • Accreditation


  • Better identification of vulnerable witnesses
  • More information for witnesses about the purpose of precognitions
  • Greater flexibility for witnesses in the arrangements for taking precognitions
  • Avoidance of 'cold-calling' on witnesses where possible

Previous Papers in the Crime and Criminal Justice Series


Proactive Policing: An Evaluation of the Central Scotland Police Crime Management Model


Foreign Language Interpreters in the Scottish Criminal Courts


Grounds of Appeal in Criminal Cases


Listening to Victims of Crime: Victimisation Episodes and the Criminal Justice System in Scotland: An Examination of White and Ethnic Minority Crime Victim Experience


The Use of the Compensation Order in Scotland


Examining the Test: An Evaluation of the Police Standard Entrance Test


The 1996 Scottish Crime Survey: First Results


Drug Misuse in Scotland: Findings from the 1993 and 1996 Scottish Crime Surveys


Information Needs of Scottish Jurors: Evaluation of the Scottish Courts Service Booklet


Facing Violence: Assessing the Training and Support Requirements of Police Constables in Scotland.


Service Provision to Women Experiencing Domestic Violence in Scotland


Children, Young People and Offending in Scotland


Feasibility Study of Legal Representation among White and Ethnic Minority Criminal Accused


From Citation to Witness Stand: A Study of Police Witness Duty at Court


Evaluation of the Hamilton Child Safety Initiative


Victim Witness Support in Scotland: An Evaluation of Three Projects


Making it Safe to Speak? A Study of Witness Intimidation and Protection in Strathclyde


Mentally Disordered Offenders and Criminal Proceedings


Attitudes Towards Crime, Victimisation and the Police in Scotland: A Comparison of White and Ethnic Minority Views


Life Sentence Prisoners in Scotland


The Effect of Closed Circuit Television on Recorded Crime Rates and Public Concern about Crime in Glasgow


Working with Persistent Juvenile Offenders: An Evaluation of the Apex CueTen Project

'The Work of Precognition Agents in Criminal Cases', the research report summarised in this Research Findings, is available priced £5.00. Cheques should be made payable to The Stationery Office and addressed to:

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