Leading Article: How to review the issues raised by the Bulger trial

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THE EUROPEAN Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has made two significant decisions regarding next month's hearing about the trial of two 10-year-old boys for the murder of two-year-old James Bulger in 1993. First, it will allow the lawyers for James Bulger's parents to make a written submission arguing that victims' relatives should have a role to play in the trial and sentencing of the perpetrators of the crime. On this point, Mr Bulger's lawyer declares that "it's a matter of balancing the victims' rights with the rights of the offenders".

Secondly, the Court has decided to hold its hearing in private, without the presence of press or public. This follows an application from one of James Bulger's killers, Robert Thompson. Under the terms of the privacy ruling, not even the reasons for the decision are being made public, although it is understood that they concern Thompson's rehabilitation.

Both of these decisions concern the rights of those most closely involved with the original trial, and they are both made at the expense of the wider public. The involvement of victims' relatives in deciding the severity of punishment is reminiscent of several well-publicised trials in countries that practise forms of Muslim law. Who can forget the anxious wait to find out whether the nearest relatives of a murdered victim will spare the killer's life? European ideals of the impartial treatment under the rule of law make it a matter of indifference to whom a victim happens to be related: criminals should be sentenced for the crime they commit, not for the nature of the feelings, vengeful or forgiving, of their victims' relatives.

The arguing of cases without the benefit of publicity deprives the wider community of attending to the process by which judges make important determinations. None the less, it is well established that the courts will hold proceedings in camera when the interests of children are at stake; and, in fact, it is how children should be tried that is at the heart of the case the Court will have to consider. The case arises from an appeal to the Court by the convicted boys, arguing that they should not have been tried in an adult court where they would not be able to understand or participate in the proceedings. Even if it is, on balance, right to hold this hearing in private, it seems unnecessary to deprive the public of knowing the reasons why they are to be excluded.

Earlier this year, the European Commission of Human Rights ruled that the children who killed James Bulger were denied a fair trial; it is this decision that the Court will review, and most likely uphold. The pity is that the decision has to be made in Strasbourg. After October 2000, when Lord Irvine's Human Rights Act comes into effect, perhaps we will update our law in British courts.