Page last updated at 19:15 GMT, Tuesday, 24 June 2008 20:15 UK

New witness law plans 'in days'

Scales of Justice statue at Old Bailey
The CPS wants all cases involving anonymous witnesses adjourned

New laws on anonymous court witnesses could be proposed within days, the government has promised.

It follows a Law Lords ruling that defendants need to know the identity of those testifying against them - making the use of anonymous witnesses illegal.

In the latest case a 6m trial of two men accused of murder was halted at the Old Bailey, and must be retried.

Senior police officers said the Law Lords' decision, covering England and Wales, was "potentially disastrous".

'Difficult balance'

Justice Minister Maria Eagle told the BBC: "We're looking very urgently at the implications of the judgement.

We are working now... to look at what we need to do to put this right
Home Secretary Jacqui Smith

"There is a difficult balance to strike here, as the Law Lords themselves recognised, between giving witnesses who fear for their safety the confidence to give their evidence, and making sure that innocent people aren't convicted in the courts and that we have the right to a fair trial."

"We're considering this matter urgently and hopefully within the next few days we'll be able to announce the way forward.

"But obviously the issues raised here are very serious."

The Crown Prosecution Service revealed it was seeking to put on hold all cases relying on anonymous evidence.

A CPS spokesman said: "We've asked our prosecutors to seek an adjournment in all cases using anonymous witnesses to allow us to assess the implications of the House of Lords judgement in each particular case."

'Case by case basis'

Reports that the Metropolitan Police had scrapped its anonymous witness programe as a result of the Lords' ruling were denied however.

A police spokesman said that requests by witnesses to give evidence anonymously were still being considered "case-by-case basis".

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said: "I certainly accept, and I said some time ago, that there is a problem here that we need to solve.

"We are working now... to look at what we need to do to put this right."

In their ruling last week, the Law Lords argued it has been a fundamental principle of English Law that the accused should be able to see his accusers and challenge them.

They said in their ruling: "No conviction should be based solely or to a decisive extent upon the statements and testimony of anonymous witnesses."

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Derailed

On Tuesday, Judge David Paget said the Old Bailey murder trial had been "derailed" by last week's ruling.

The case, the first to be affected following the ruling, will be retried in February 2009.

Four witnesses had given evidence under false names and from behind screens during the two-month trial over the murder of Charles Butler in Dagenham, east London, in 2004.

Douglas Johnson, 27, and David Austin, 41, both of south London, have denied murder.

Several recent, high-profile trials have also used anonymous witness testimony, including those following the murders of schoolboy Michael Dosunmu and care worker Magda Pniewska.

The solicitor for two of the four men found guilty of murdering Birmingham teenagers Charlene Ellis and Letisha Shakespeare in 2003 has said they will also appeal against the convictions, because anonymous witnesses were used.

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