Page last updated at 21:25 GMT, Tuesday, 8 July 2008 22:25 UK

Barristers attack anonymity bill

Scales of Justice statue at Old Bailey
Emergency legislation is being proposed following a Law Lords' ruling

Plans to give judges the power to allow anonymous evidence in court cases are "too broad", barristers have warned.

The Bar Council says emergency legislation, which passed unopposed by MPs, could lead to too many witnesses appearing in court anonymously.

Director of Public Prosecutions Sir Ken Macdonald QC said a "large number" of cases could be "at risk" without it.

He said that the Crown Prosecution Service had identified 580 cases that could be affected.

'Public interest'

The Criminal Evidence (Witness Anonymity) Bill received unopposed second and third readings, clearing the Commons in one day.

Its Lords second reading debate is due on Thursday.

If passed by Parliament, the bill would allow judges to rule that their court can hear evidence anonymously, to protect the safety of witnesses or their property and "to prevent real harm to the public interest".

A Law Lords' ruling last month that defendants had to know who was testifying against them led to a 6m trial being halted.

If the government doesn't respond, I think the likelihood is a large number of the 580 cases, including the 50 involving civilians, will be at risk
Sir Ken McDonald
Director of Public Prosecutions

Justice Secretary Jack Straw wants to rush through the new law to prevent hundreds of cases collapsing or convicts appealing on the grounds that there are anonymous witnesses at their trial.

He said a balance had to be struck between a defendant's right to a fair trial and the prevention of witness intimidation.

This was particularly relevant in cases involving guns, drugs and gangs, where families, properties and neighbourhoods were threatened if they give evidence, he said.

Mr Straw told MPs: "The identity of the witness is known to the judge and the mechanical disguising of the voice is for the defendant and his representatives - but the jury can see the witness."

Shadow justice secretary Nick Herbert said while his party would back the measures, they should only be used "out of necessity to secure justice, not out of convenience to secure a conviction".

Fair trial

The Bar Council, which represents 17,000 barristers in England and Wales, has handed papers to MPs claiming the bill is "too widely drawn".

It suggests defence barristers should be added to the list of court staff who could see anonymous witnesses.

Bar Council chairman Tim Dutton QC said: "Where a judge and jury can see the demeanour of a witness but a barrister cross-examining cannot, this vital means of testing prosecution evidence is substantially weakened and in some cases could be undermined."

The legislation would clarify when a witness anonymity order could be granted in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

A Crown Prosecution Service spokeswoman said 380 cases involving anonymous witnesses were "live" in the courts, including 50 cases where the witness was a member of the public.

'Entirely consistent'

Sir Ken Macdonald said he believed the bill would lead to fewer applications for anonymity.

"Anonymity in very many cases can be entirely consistent with a fair trial," he said.

But he added: "If the law is to be changed, it does need to happen swiftly, subject to the law being carefully drafted."

The government hopes the bill, which has the backing of opposition parties, will become law before the parliamentary summer recess on 23 July.

The Scottish government has said it is "consulting closely" with the Ministry of Justice to see if similar provisions would be required in Scotland.

But the Law Society said it was "concerned that the urgent nature of this bill does not override the requirement for proper consideration of the important issues involved in relation to witness anonymity".

'Emergency' witness law unveiled
26 Jun 08 |  UK Politics

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