Witnesses will always be at risk in British courts

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

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Syrian refugee 'Nora' with her two month-old daughter. She was one of the first Syrians to come to the UK when the Government agreed to resettle 100 people from the country  

Open letter to David Cameron on Syrian refugees: 'Several hundred people' isn't good enough

Independent Voices
Amjad Bashir said Ukip had become a 'party of ruthless self-interest'  

Could Ukip turncoat Amjad Bashir be the Churchill of his day?

Matthew Norman
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project