Creating a fairer Britain
The Equality and Human Rights Commission recognises the importance of protecting the rights of victims and witnesses in criminal proceedings and in this regard has intervened in a case before the House of Lords* concerning the obligation on the police to protect the right to life where victims and witnesses are threatened.
The right of those being prosecuted to know about who is making the accusation is a fundamental one, is a key provision of the English constitution and one guaranteed by international human rights principles. However the Commission accepts that in very exceptional circumstances there may be a need for witnesses to be granted anonymity in criminal proceedings. The granting of a witness anonymity order, however, can never be at the cost of the guarantee of a right to a fair trial.
The Commission is concerned that the Criminal Evidence (Witness Anonymity) Bill is not sufficiently tightly drafted to reflect the protections of the right to a fair trial which arise from the duties under the Human Rights Act and the findings of the European Court of Human Rights. We also believe that a Bill that raises such serious human rights concerns will need, in the fullness of time, thorough and lengthy debate.
We do, though, understand the reasons for the speed with which this Bill is being pushed through Parliament in response to the House of Lords judgment in R v Davis.** Without it a number of high-profile and serious trials could be put at immediate risk. We therefore welcome the Justice Secretary’s undertaking that the provisions of this Bill will be repealed and subsumed within next session’s Law Reform, Victims and Witnesses Bill and look forward to the opportunity to engage in a full debate on the issues raised by the Bill at that time. We think it would be useful at this stage, given that undertaking, if the Government were able to say when the Law Reform, Victims and Witnesses Bill will be brought before Parliament.
* On appeal from Van Colle & Anor v Hertfordshire Police  EWCA Civ 325 (24 April 2007) joined cases, House of Lords judgment pending 2008.
Read our press release from 19 May 2008 about the Van Colle case: 'Police failed to protect murder victim's right to life, argues Commission'
** Davis, R v  UKHL 36 (18 June 2008)
For queries relating to this briefing please contact:
F. Kelly on 0203 117 0318
Find out more about the Criminal Evidence (witness anonymity) Bill on the UK Parliament website