Page last updated at 20:17 GMT, Thursday, 26 June 2008 21:17 UK

'Emergency' witness law unveiled

Jack Straw gives details in the House of Commons

Jack Straw has said laws in England and Wales to let witnesses give evidence anonymously will be rushed through Parliament as this was "an emergency".

The law lords' ruling last week that defendants needed to know who was testifying against them has already led to one 6m trial being halted.

Mr Straw, justice secretary, said the use of anonymity was "fundamental" in cases including murder and terrorism.

He said the changes needed to be rushed in to avoid further cases collapsing.

He said the legislation was still being drafted but it would also include measures to stop people appealing against convictions on the grounds that there had been anonymous evidence given at their trial.

Last week the law lords ruled that a man convicted in 2004 of two murders had not received a fair trial, because it was based on evidence from anonymous witnesses. He can now appeal against his conviction.

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

'Fundamental'

The Metropolitan Police have said they were "very concerned" by the ruling and its potential impact on gang crime cases, in which the use of anonymous witnesses has resulted in high-profile convictions.

Police have warned that up to 40 trials may be affected by the lords' ruling.

Mr Straw said he wanted the measures - to come before MPs within a fortnight - rushed through Parliament by the end of July.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's The World at One, he acknowledged there were risks associated with rushing legislation through Parliament in this way.

But he said: "I wouldn't dream of bringing forward emergency legislation unless there was an emergency."

He said there had to be an "assumption that an accused can confront his or her accusers in open court - that's fundamental to all systems of justice".

Police 'habit'

But he insisted the move was needed in certain cases.

And he hit back at claims by Lib Dem legal affairs spokesman Lord Thomas that witness intimidation was "no greater than it has been in the past" and police had simply got into the "habit" of promising witnesses anonymity.

Mr Straw said: "Witness intimidation is as old as the hills, but it is a growing problem and it is a specific problem in certain inner city areas and we have got to deal with that."

Speaking earlier to MPs, Mr Straw said anonymous evidence was "these days fundamental to the successful prosecution of a significant number of cases, some of which involve murder, blackmail, violent disorder and terrorism".

And he added: "Such cases could be jeopardised if we do not quickly fill the gap created by their Lordships' judgment".

He said there would be an open meeting for MPs and peers to discuss the proposed measures, which he said were temporary and would be replaced by a law reform bill scheduled for next year.

He told MPs that witness intimidation had become "an all too common feature in crimes of a serious nature, especially those involving guns, gangs or drugs".

He said "careful and proportionate" measures on anonymity had been developed in response but these had now been challenged by the law lords.

Scottish system

The measures now being proposed meant "the trial judge will have to be satisfied that the need for anonymity is established; that a fair trial will be possible and that it is in the interests of justice to make such an order".

For the Conservatives Nick Herbert agreed there was a need to act and said they would be "constructive" over the Bill's passage.

He warned that the history of emergency legislation was "not a happy one".

The measures applied to England and Wales but a spokesman for the Scottish government said it was "consulting closely" with the Ministry of Justice to see if similar "provisions" would be required in Scotland.

"The system of criminal procedure in Scotland is quite distinct from that south of the border," he said, "although it has allowed for measures to be taken to protect the identity of witnesses, including the use of pseudonyms, in specific cases."

He went on: "The recent ruling will not affect the provision of special measures for child and adult 'vulnerable' witnesses, as their identity will be known to the court and their evidence will be given in full view of the accused."


SEE ALSO

RELATED INTERNET LINKS
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

FROM OTHER NEWS SITES
Andover Advertiser Anonymity Bill 'within fortnight' - 10 hrs ago
Western Telegraph Anonymity Bill 'within fortnight' - 11 hrs ago
Horncastle News Anonymity Bill 'within fortnight' - 11 hrs ago
Birmingham Evening Mail New anonymity law within weeks - 13 hrs ago



FEATURES, VIEWS, ANALYSIS
Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

BBC iD

Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2019 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific