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.Reuse content