Anonymous witnesses

I’ve been confused over the past week or so by the Law Lords’ decision to ban anonymous witnessing, and today, within one week of the decision, a case has been halted because of it. The Law Lords’ argument is that defendants should have the right to know who is accusing them of a crime, in the interests of civil liberties. Now normally I’m all for the protection of civil liberties, but this one’s a bit of a stretch even for me.

For starters, since when is it a civil liberty to know who is accusing you of a crime? I don’t remember seeing that in the declaration of human rights. As far as I’m concerned, it’s more important what the witness says, than who the witness is. I can see how the credibility of an anonymous witness could become an issue, but surely it’s possible for the judge and jury to know the background information on the witness, without the defendant themselves knowing? This would protect the anonymity of the witness whilst solving the problem of credibility. But nevertheless this isn’t the problem that the Law Lords are trying to solve. They specifically bring up the civil liberties of the defendant in their argument.

Really, what is the problem with anonymous witnessing? I really can’t see any practical advantage that a defendant should know who it is that’s giving evidence. I understand that defendants should know what they’re being charged with and that they should see and hear the evidence put against them, but in practice it’s just not always feasible for a witness to be identified. Think about the kinds of cases where they use anonymous witnessing. It’s not at all often, usually just in very high profile cases involving the most dangerous criminals, for the safety of the witness. If anonymous witnesses are not allowed, then these are the kinds of criminals who will not be being prosecuted. How can you prosecute such a dangerous person if noone is willing to come forwards and give evidence? Gangsters will once again think they are immune to the law, the kinds of people who used to run the criminal underworlds of cities like Manchester and London.

As you can probably tell, I think this is a really serious issue, and fortunately Justice Minister Jack Straw agrees. He’s made it a priority to enshrine the right to anonymity in the law. Hopefully the problem will be solved, and the Law Lords and the government can work together in addressing the balance between the rights of defendants and the practicality of the police and the courtroom.


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