Page last updated at 14:31 GMT, Thursday, 19 June 2008 15:31 UK

Witness anonymity law may change

Charlene Ellis (l) and Letisha Shakespeare
Charlene Ellis (l) and Letisha Shakespeare were shot in Aston

The government has moved to take action to clarify the law after a ruling by top judges which police fear could end anonymity for some witnesses.

The Law Lords ruled on Tuesday that a man convicted of a double murder received an unfair trial because witnesses gave evidence anonymously.

Police chiefs are concerned the ruling could effect many investigations.

Harriet Harman told MPs legislation to protect anonymity measures could be brought forward later this year.

Ian Davis was jailed in 2004 for murdering two men at a New Year's Eve party in Hackney, London, after three witnesses said he was the gunman.

The witnesses were given a wide range of special anonymity measures including the use of pseudonyms, masking of personal details and electronic voice distortion.

Davis' counsel could see the witnesses - but he was not allowed to ask any question which could lead to identification.

In their ruling, the Law Lords said no conviction should be based "solely or to a decisive extent upon the statements and testimony of anonymous witnesses" - and defendants had the right to confront their accusers.

This had been a principle of English law since the abolition of the medieval star chamber, a secret court, and the infamous trial of Sir Walter Raleigh, said the Lords.

Davis' case is now being referred back to the Court of Appeal where judges could order a retrial.

Birmingham appeal

But since the ruling, a lawyer for the men convicted of the shooting of Birmingham teenagers Charlene Ellis and Letisha Shakespeare in 2003 has said they may appeal as that conviction partly relied on an anonymous witness.

Helen Ball, the head of the Metropolitan Police's Operation Trident investigations into major gun crime within black communities, has also warned that some witnesses already think twice before coming forward.

In the Commons, Ms Harman hinted the government may move in the coming months to change the law.

She told MPs there would be an opportunity to change the law if necessary in the forthcoming Victims and Witnesses Bill.

"We must ensure it is not such an ordeal for victims and witnesses that they dare not step forward," said Ms Harman.

Complicated rules

The rules around anonymity in criminal trials have been changing in recent years, partly because of the increasing role they have played in trials linked to organised gun and drugs crime.

Judges can order anonymity on grounds of witness protection or national security, but the measures used in the Davis case were broader than in similar trials.

But many defence lawyers argue it deprives their clients of the chance to properly test allegations because they cannot uncover whether the witness has an ulterior motive.

Murder trial sets legal precedent
18 Mar 05 |  West Midlands
New Year gun killers may appeal
19 Jun 08 |  West Midlands

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