Lawyers defend cross-examination of Dowler family

Director of Public Prosecutions will look at how victims are treated in court after parents' ordeal

Andrew McCorkell
Sunday 26 June 2011 00:00
Bellfield was jailed for life on Friday for murdering the 13-year-old in 2002
Bellfield was jailed for life on Friday for murdering the 13-year-old in 2002

Lawyers yesterday launched a vigorous defence of both barristers and the courts in the face of criticism sparked by the presentation of uninhibited evidence about Milly Dowler's family during the trial of her murderer.

Immediately after the conviction of Levi Bellfield, the girl's family and the most senior police officer in the case led attacks on the judicial system which allowed a highly personal line of questioning that made them victims twice over. They said their private lives had been revealed in a "horrifying ordeal" during the trial, including humiliating cross-examinations by Bellfield's barristers. Milly's father, Bob Dowler, 59, had to disclose embarrassing details about his sex life, and listen as Milly's diaries – in which she described herself as a "disappointment" – were revealed. Several newspapers and commentators echoed their criticisms, and police called for changes to the justice system.

Jeffrey Samuels QC, the defence barrister, was unavailable for comment last night as colleagues expressed concern that he was being harassed by tabloid newspapers. But yesterday, the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) argued that the adversarial nature of trials is fundamental to justice. "It's a key role," Chris Kinch QC, the chairman of the CBA, said. "One of the great things about our system is that defence lawyers do their job, give a defendant the best defence possible, and when the jury say they are guilty, they are convicted. That gives you such confidence in our system. If we read about a Brit abroad who was being defended by a lawyer who had stones thrown at his house, we would say, 'What a terrible country – just for defending somebody, a lawyer gets pilloried'."

Bellfield, 43, was jailed for life on Friday for murdering the 13-year-old in 2002. The former doorman and wheel-clamper refused to face the Dowler family in court when he was sentenced to two whole life terms. After the sentencing, Milly's mother, Sally Dowler, 51, said: "We have had to lose our right to privacy and sit through day after harrowing day of the trial in order to get a man convicted of a brutal murder."

The Director of Public Prosecutions has said he will look at how victims are treated in court. Keir Starmer QC added: "This trial has raised some fundamental questions about the treatment of victims and witnesses in the court process." Chief Constable Mark Rowley of Surrey Police said he was "upset and embarrassed" by the justice system's treatment of the family and called for its reform.

Mark Leech, editor of the prisoners' newspaper ConVerse, said Mr Rowley's call for reform was unnecessary. "There is no need for reform of the way victims and their families are treated in court because the judge already acts as a safeguard to unnecessary and intrusive questioning which falls outside what is legitimate to the defence. Mark Rowley's disingenuous call for reform is nothing more than a knee-jerk response from a police force which is embarrassed that it didn't act sooner to arrest Bellfield when the facts now reveal the evidence was available to them."

But last night Mr Kinch told The IoS that defence barristers do not launch attacks on witnesses without justification: "The police had asked the father questions. So there was material. Defence lawyers do not just beat up witnesses for the fun of it."

Paul Mendelle QC, a former chairman of the CBA, said: "I suspect a client like Bellfield who has got nothing to lose probably actually wanted this spectacle. I suspect he said, 'No, I want that family called, I want them in that witness box'."

Milly disappeared on her way home from school in Walton-on-Thames in March 2002. Her body was found six months later in a wood in Hampshire.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in