Plan to free witnesses from fear

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The Independent Online
Radical proposals to help frightened witnesses could mean a sharp increase in successful prosecutions of hard-drug dealers and sex offenders.

Many prosecutions, particularly for drugs offences, are being dropped, wasting millions of pounds, because witnesses fail to turn up to testify, fearing reprisals from drug barons.

Under the proposals by the Law Commission, the Government's law reform body, statements of witnesses later subjected to intimidation or the fear of intimidation would be allowable to be used by the prosecution in criminal trials in place of oral testimony.

The changes would also enable more prosecutions to be brought against child sex abusers, abusers of mentally disabled people, and rapists.

At present, prosecutions of alleged abusers often collapse or fail to get the go-ahead in the first place because the child victim is too young or a disabled person too disadvantaged to cope with the trial and cross- examination. But under the commission's proposals, judges would be given the power to admit previous statements to the police as evidence. There should also be an additional discretion for the court to admit statements of absent witnesses in cases where the "interests of justice" require it, the commission says. The same rules would apply in rape cases where the victim is too traumatised to face her alleged attacker in court.

The changes would operate as major new exceptions to the rule against hearsay evidence, which excludes evidence other than oral evidence from a person about what they saw or heard.

The proposals are bound to attract criticism because the maker of a written statement cannot be cross-examined. But the commission emphasises that the changes would help accused people as well as prosecutors and could help to avoid miscarriages of justice.

Their report cites a 1994 case in which an eight-year-old witness had provided a statement to the police which contradicted the prosecution case. The child was later unable to recollect the events. Because of the existing rule, evidence which tended to show that the defendant had not committed the murder he was charged with never reached the jury.

In another case a white man was accused of assaulting a three-year-old girl. She was not called as a witness and the defendant was prevented from using evidence that she had initially described her attacker as "coloured".

Stephen Silber QC, the Law Commissioner responsible for the project, said: "We believe that our recommendations, if enacted, would be of assistance in many areas, including assisting in the prosecution of drug offenders. They would make it much easier for the evidence of frightened prosecution witnesses to be adduced."

Publication of the report coincides with the announcement of an interdepartmental review of the protection of witnesses, headed by Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, which will consider whether to let vulnerable witnesses provide written or video evidence to courts.