That’s progress for you…

Convicted killers could go free if the UK’s law lords have their way – and intimidated witnesses are denied the right to anonymity during court cases.

While Jack Straw and his men try desperately to rush through a bill protecting the use of anonymous witnesses by next week, lawyers for two of four men found guilty of killing Letisha Shakespeare and Charlene Ellis, two Birmingham teenagers shot dead outside a New Year’s party in 2003, have already said they will appeal.

An article in the Times said:

Experts have warned that the law lords’ ruling threatened other key trials already under way and said that up to 40 people convicted of serious crimes in London alone could walk free if witnesses refused to reveal their names in any retrial

People are scared enough. But if they’re not prepared to give evidence for fear of reprisals, violent criminals really will have a field day.

Let’s face it. They’ve already got one over us.

We shouldn’t need to give evidence anonymously in the first place.


4 Responses

  1. Hang on a second. Nobody is denying that there are severe problems of witness intimidation in some criminal cases. The problem is that the existing system does not adequately balance the need to protect witnesses against the right to face one’s accuser. That is why the Lords stated that the law needs clarification by Parliament.

    If you don’t know who a witness is, you can’t challenge their testimony effectively. You can’t even ask if they actually saw what took place, as to do so might give clues as to who they are.

    Imagine if you were falsely accused by someone who had a score to settle with you. Your accuser opts for witness anonymity. If you knew who the witness was you could demolish their credibility by pointing out during cross-examination that they were pursuing a vendetta and therefore unreliable. But thanks to the witness anonymity laws, you have no idea who your accuser is, and are left incapable of effectively challenging their testimony. The defendant is left incapable of defending himself because the system has tied one of his arms behind his back.

    Witness anonymity is not a panacaea, and had until now gone too far. Going on the stand is always going to require courage: witness intimidation is nothing new. Certainly witness anonymity is an easy solution, but it is not the right one: we have to look at other ways to protect witnesses.

  2. True, Benjamin.

    It’s a tough situation – and of course, innocent until proven guilty should prevail in all court cases. The accused should always have the right to a fair trial, otherwise it just wouldn’t be justice.

    Then, of course, we have to have complete transparency – which would, as explained, undoubtedly deter a lot of completely innocent people from giving evidence – many times crucial in seeing violent criminals put behind bars.

    We have to have faith in the justice system that the evidence brought is reliable – that there are no ‘scores being settled’ on the courtroom stand. Otherwise, what about those innocent passers-by or neighbours who witness an incident and on whose evidence justice depends? What then?

  3. If the police could protect witnesses to a murder, why couldn’t they have protected the victim of the murder in the first place? And if to protect the witness they have to take him away and hide him, then the witness becomes a prisoner more surely than the murderer.

    Charles Dickens’ _A Tale of Two Cities_ shows that witness protection through anonymity was already a feature of French jurisprudence over two hundred years ago. Why were France and England different? The French were policed by soldiers of the French army, whereas in England every citizen had law enforcement responsibilities. In France the peasants were forbidden to protect themselves with weapons; in England being armed was considered a moral duty.

    Over the last fifty to a hundred years England has been moving away from its traditional system of “the people are the police and the police are the people” to a more continental/feudal system in which the people are forbidden to protect themselves and must rely upon government employees instead. With such a system, you _must_ have anonymous witnesses.

    Yes, witness anonymity will allow some abuses and outrages (as Dickens’ novel described), but there is no way to create a perfect Kingdom of Heaven on earth. Encouraging the people to have courage and defend themselves, though necessary in a system in which the criminal may openly face his accuser in court, sometimes results in citizens using their legal weapons to commit murder. Allowing neither weapons nor anonymous witnesses, on the other hand, results in anarchy and rule by criminal gangs.

    Your choices are: a legally armed society, versus anonymous witnesses and other losses of civil liberties, versus rule by feudal criminal gangs.

    No system is perfect. Whatever approach you choose, you have to take the bad with the good. Do not imagine that you can take the good from each approach and reject the bad.

  4. Are you sure you want to cite as your historical example of jurisprudence the story of an historical event that resulted in the show trials and mass executions of Reign of Terror?

    “Over the last fifty to a hundred years England has been moving away from its traditional system of “the people are the police and the police are the people” to a more continental/feudal system in which the people are forbidden to protect themselves and must rely upon government employees instead.”

    That’s rubbish: the law affords private citizens a huge amount of discretion in defending themselves. I refer you to a statement on reasonable force by the Crown Prosecution Service(, which states:

    “You are not expected to make fine judgements over the level of force you use in the heat of the moment. So long as you only do what you honestly and instinctively believe is necessary in the heat of the moment, that would be the strongest evidence of you acting lawfully and in selfdefence. This is still the case if you use something to hand as a weapon.”

    If you want to make such a sweeping generalisation that the British legal systems have worked to reduce the provisions for self-defence then you’d better have evidence to back it up.

    Knowing the identity of a witness is essential to being able to effectively cross-examine them. Take the Damilola Taylor trials as an example. The co-defendants in the 2002 trial were acquitted because the witness against them was unreliable. The credibility of her testimony could only be challenged because the defence knew her identity. Had she been anonymous then those defendants may well have been convicted, sending innocent children to prison while letting his real killers go free.

    Like you say, no system is perfect, but witness anonymity is one of the worst options available.

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