Witnesses will always be at risk in British courts

Our adversarial system gives barristers every incentive to trash people's reputations

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Nigella Lawson "cannot forgive the court process", she said in a statement after the trial in which two of her former assistants were acquitted of fraud. She has a point. Her reputation has been thoroughly tenderised, although she was a witness rather than a defendant. Her drug use was frankly of peripheral relevance to the charge that was being tried, and, because juries are not required to give reasons for their verdict, we do not know whether this jury believed her protestations of relative innocence or not. It could have decided that the Grillo sisters were not guilty because no one had ever questioned their spending on credit cards belonging to Charles Saatchi's company, rather than because they had a deal with Ms Lawson to conceal her drug use.

Our sympathy for Ms Lawson is bounded, however. She is rich, privileged and has transatlantic ambitions. In particular, she is fortunate to escape prosecution for illegal drug use, which she has admitted, while insisting that her indulgence was brief.

Yet she draws attention to what is indeed a serious problem with "the court process" in this country. The adversarial system gives barristers every incentive to trash the reputation of witnesses for the other side, and witnesses, who have no choice but to appear, have no right to redress or even to legal representation.

This has terrible consequences, not just for the lives of some witnesses but for justice. Take, for example, the Rochdale grooming cases, which came to court last year. Nine men were jailed for the sexual abuse of young women, some under age, who had been coerced by violence or induced by alcohol or drugs. That case covered only a small part of the abuse that had occurred and which may still be occurring. Before and since, many witnesses have come forward to say that they, too, were abused, by men whom they sometimes still see on the streets of the town. But, because the Crown Prosecution Service fears that the women's characters will be torn to shreds if they came to court, their cases have not been pursued.

That is a more serious injustice than the invasion of the private unhappiness of a popular television presenter. It is not one for which there is an easy or simple solution. Ultimately, the adversarial system is, as Winston Churchill said of democracy, the worst criminal justice system, apart from any other system. But there are things that can be done and indeed that are being done to make the court process work better.

Keir Starmer, former Director of Public Prosecutions, and Martin Hewitt of the Metropolitan Police started to reform court procedures to provide better protection for witnesses, and the CPS has since begun to review hundreds of discontinued cases to see whether prosecutions might be in the public interest after all.

In the end, though, the best protection for witnesses is that afforded by public opinion. Attitudes towards sex abuse cases in particular have changed in recent years, and any barrister pursuing a witness too aggressively is liable to repel the sympathies of the jury.

Ms Lawson can look after herself. The witnesses in abuse cases are the ones deserving of sympathy and renewed attempts at reform to give them greater protection. If Ms Lawson has helped to raise awareness of this problem, she has performed a valuable public service.

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