Leading Article: Keep cash out of the courts

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The Independent Online
Tens of thousands of pounds are being paid in total to many of the witnesses in the Rosemary West trial. Anne Marie Davis, Mrs West's stepdaughter, gets pounds 3,000 from the Daily Star. Caroline Owens, attacked by the Wests in 1972, will get pounds 20,000 from the Sun. Kathryn Halliday receives pounds 8,000 from the Sunday Mirror. The list of lucrative liaisons between tabloid and witness goes on and on.

Perhaps we should not find this surprising. Allegations of sexual abuse and violence make a gripping, if distressing, tale. Many people want to read the witnesses' stories and are prepared to pay for the newspapers that deliver the details. Even the Official Solicitor has entered the market for criminal allegations and confessions. Fred West's autobiography and the police transcripts of his interviews are to be sold in a publishing deal for a post-trial book. Little wonder, then, that the witnesses want their cut, too.

But it cannot be right that participants in criminal proceedings are involved in financial transactions over the details of their evidence. We would be outraged if the police were found slipping the odd tenner to the eyewitness of a burglary, or if the defence in a fraud case had promised a sympathetic witness a holiday in the Caribbean. Yet chequebook journalism during a trial raises exactly the same kinds of concerns.

Imagine the tabloid hack turning up on your doorstep to hear about the neighbours who have appeared in court. "Sorry, not enough sex, can't pay more than pounds 200. Now if, by any chance, there was a whip? In which case, perhaps we could stretch to a grand." And, let's face it, pounds 1,000 is a tempting inducement to a little exaggeration or a few embellishments.

To seek to influence the evidence a witness will give is illegal - it counts as contempt of court. But how on earth do you prove it? It is extremely difficult to show that a particular witness decided to change his/her testimony purely on the basis of the money she/he was promised.

So the buying up of witnesses continues unabated and public confidence in the judicial process continues to decline. For if money and the media are seen to be pervasive influences in the courtroom, then victims and defendants will lose faith in the idea of a fair trial.

The Press Complaints Commission is hopelessly inadequate to sort this mess out. "Paying witnesses or potential witnesses in current criminal proceedings" clearly violates its code of conduct. Yet this has made no difference to the behaviour of the tabloid newspapers who pretend to abide by it.

It is time for the law to step in. It should be illegal for newspapers to engage in financial transactions - whether in fact or in promise - with witnesses until a trial is over. The Lord Chancellor should find a way to do this as fast as possible, before a serious violation of justice takes place.