Anonymous witnesses

June 24, 2008

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.

Organ donation

January 13, 2008

As you may know, I enjoy taking part in discussions in online forums (fora?), and the dish of the day is organ donation, or more specifically recent suggestions for an ‘opt-out’ system. There are currently 14.9 million people on the organ donor’s register, out of a population of 60 million in the UK. The suggestion is that instead of choosing for your organs to be donated after you die, everyone is assumed to want to donate their organs to be donated, unless they fill in a form to say they don’t.

At first glance it seems like a great idea, more organs would still be donated despite the apparent laziness and apathy of the general public, but there’s still a way to opt out if you want to. But then it was illustrated in a different way.

I don’t think anyone would deny that your body and organs are your own property. But if it’s assumed that you want to give your organs once you die, then your organs are seen as the property of the state, unless you ask for them back. It shouldn’t be up to the state what happens to your organs once you die.

But I suppose you could look at that argument the other way around too. Just as someone who doesn’t want their organs donated could have them taken away because they’ve forgotten to fill in the form to opt out, there may be people now who want to donate their organs but haven’t got round to filling the form in, so their organs won’t be used in the way they wanted either. That would go against their wishes just as much as someone who doesn’t want to donate having their organs taken would.

To be perfectly honest though, I can’t think of a single justifiable reason why someone wouldn’t want to donate their organs after they die. It’s just plain selfish. You don’t need those organs after you die, but they could be life-saving to someone else suffering a painful condition. Even from most religious perspectives (which I obviously wouldn’t call ‘justifiable’ anyway), after you die the body is separate from the soul, so it doesn’t matter if your organs aren’t there. Some people say that they don’t like the idea of being chopped up, but you’ll be dead, so you won’t even be there! It is the height of selfishness to deny someone else life when it is practically no effort on your part.

So what’s the best way to approach the situation? Should we be making organ donation the norm, legally, despite claims that it’s eroding civil liberties, or should we focus on advertising so that people are more aware that they should be putting themselves on the register?

There’s a balance between the 2 situations. Either way there are lots of people in the middle who don’t care one way or the other about what happens to their organs after they die. Surely we should make it that if people don’t care, then their otherwise useless bodies are used for the greater good?

I’m for it.