Police cleared over witness's death

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The Independent Online

Police were today cleared of liability for the death of a court witness who was murdered days before he was due to give evidence.

The House of Lords allowed an appeal by Hertfordshire Police against a finding that they violated human rights laws in failing to protect the life of 25-year-old optician Giles Van Colle.

His family were awarded damages against the police after he was shot three times at close range in north-west London in November 2000 - a few days before his former employee, Daniel Brougham, stood trial for theft.

Edward Faulkes QC, representing the police force, told a panel of five Law Lords in May this year that Brougham, a petty criminal whose record included crimes of common assault, public disorder and theft of a car, was standing trial for taking items valued at just £500.

He said it was not the sort of case where the witness could have been categorised as in immediate danger of losing his life and therefore human rights laws were not engaged.

Three appeal judges in London last year rejected a challenge by Hertfordshire Police over the conclusion of a High Court judge that there had been a violation of human rights laws in failing to "discharge the positive obligation of the police" to protect the life of the optician.

His life would have been protected if he had been placed in a safe house, the court was told.

The Law Lords also allowed an appeal by Sussex Police against a Court of Appeal finding that the force was negligent in not protecting a man who was attacked by his former partner with a claw hammer.

Stephen Smith, who was seriously injured, had repeatedly warned Brighton Police that Gareth Jeffrey was threatening to kill him.

Equality and Human Rights Commission legal group director John Wadham expressed disappointment at the ruling.

He said: "Giles Van Colle was murdered while carrying out his civic duty.

"Our justice system relies on the willingness of people to come forward to provide evidence. If the public do not feel safe doing that then the system will fail.

"It is important the public have confidence in the criminal justice system and the police should take appropriate and positive measures to protect witnesses."

He said: "The Government's forthcoming Victims and Witnesses Bill is an opportunity to examine the issues raised by this case and consider further how the public can be protected in such situations."