Leading article: Disclosure is not always in the interests of justice

Jack Straw is right to resist demands for information on Jon Venables

Share
Related Topics

Jack Straw's statement to the Commons yesterday on Jon Venables was never going to appease those who believe the public has an absolute right to know what new misdemeanours the killer of James Bulger stands accused of. But did the Justice Secretary serve the wider interests of justice by refusing to reveal why Venables was returned to prison?

Anyone can see that we are in a deeply unsatisfactory situation at the moment with respect to this case. There is rampant speculation in the media about what Venables did to trigger his recall to prison, none of which has been verified. And a highly emotive campaign, involving James Bulger's mother, for the Government to release this information is gathering pace.

But releasing information on Venables could leave us in a still more unsatisfactory position if it blew the court-ordered anonymity of an innocent person (we must remember that Venables has not yet been found guilty of any new crime) or disrupted criminal proceedings that could be in the pipeline.

Mr Straw told the Commons that he gave "active consideration" to releasing more details on the case but decided against, apparently after being warned by the police and the Director of Public Prosecutions that this would risk undermining an ongoing investigation and could jeopardise a potential future trial. The Justice Secretary was right to heed these warnings.

Until Venables is charged with a crime there should be no details divulged about his latest alleged offence. This is one of those rare cases when the state's requirement to protect an indfividual's personal safety should take precedence over the requirement for full transparency in the workings of justice.

It is vital to recognise that we are dealing with a special case. The decision by the courts to grant anonymity to Venables and the other Bulger killer, Robert Thompson, on their release from prison under licence in 2001 was right and humane. The argument that public money should not have been spent on setting up two child killers in a new life is a red herring. So are the complaints about the effectiveness of rehabilitation. Given that Venables and Thompson had served their sentence and were due to be released, they needed new identities for their own protection. The raw public rage that has been provoked by this latest development is proof enough of that.

If Venables is charged with a serious crime then the situation will inevitably change. The question will then shift to: would removing Venables's anonymity prevent him receiving a fair trial? This is an issue that is just as vexed. It is true that a defendant's previous convictions can now be disclosed in court if they are considered relevant. This would seem to imply that the removal of Venables's anonymity might be justified. But much is left to the discretion of a judge with respect to disclosure. And it is far from clear whether justice would be served by disclosing Venables's true identity to a jury. There is a danger that he might become "untriable".

We are, by necessity, dealing with a world of hypotheticals and assumptions. Legal proceedings appear to be at an early stage. But certain liberal principles apply, namely the presumption of innocence until guilt is proven and a defendant's right to a fair trial. Those principles should guide ministers through this unwelcome legal and ethical quagmire.

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

BC2

£50000 - £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

SAP Data Migration Consultant

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client, a FTSE 100 organisation are u...

Programme Support, Coms, Bristol, £300-350p/d

£300 - £350 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

Linux Systems Administrator

£33000 per annum + pension, 25 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A highly successfu...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A still from the BBC's new rap about the outbreak of WW1  

Why give the young such a bad rap?

David Lister
Israeli army soldiers take their positions  

Errors and Omissions: Some news reports don’t quite hit the right target

Guy Keleny
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice