Policing and Crime Bill - Committee (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:45 pm on 16th November 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Chisholm of Owlpen Baroness Chisholm of Owlpen Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 8:45 pm, 16th November 2016

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, explained, this amendment seeks to grant victims or witnesses of sexual or violent crime anonymity in cases where it is reasonable to assume that disclosure would put them at risk of further harm. The noble Lord has indicated that he is particularly concerned with cases of so-called “stranger rape”.

I say from the outset that I agree wholeheartedly that the criminal justice system must support and protect victims and witnesses, particularly victims of sexual offences who are especially vulnerable. There are already a number of means whereby those at risk of further harm can be safeguarded and I will briefly itemise these in a moment but, before doing so, I must point to a central difficulty with the noble Lord’s amendment. The overarching principle of our criminal justice system is that the defendant must be given a fair trial. This is clearly stated in Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Fundamental to this is the right of the accused to be informed promptly, in a language which he understands, and in detail, of the nature and cause of the accusation against him. I am sure the noble Lord accepts that the accused cannot be expected to defend himself properly at trial if he does not even know who is accusing him of the alleged crime. This amendment would fundamentally undermine that cornerstone of our justice system.

That is not to say that there should not be crucial safeguards in place for victims and witnesses who have had the grave misfortune to experience violent or sexual crimes. As I have indicated, there are already multiple mechanisms the police and courts can employ to protect victims. Where necessary for the purpose of the investigation, the police can seek to detain the accused for up to 96 hours pending charge and seek to have him or her remanded in custody post-charge. If it is not possible to bring charges within the time limits on pre-charge detention, the suspect can be bailed subject to conditions which prohibit contact with the victim.

There are also established provisions in legislation for witness protection programmes and the provision of special measures during criminal proceedings; for example, a complainant can give evidence via a live link or behind a screen.

There is already provision for anonymity of complainants or witnesses, to be used as an exceptional measure of last practicable resort. A witness anonymity order can be granted by the court if it is satisfied that their identification would adversely affect the quality of evidence given by them, or their level of co-operation with the prosecution. The Director of Public Prosecution’s guidance on witness anonymity is clear that where the prosecution cannot present its case in a way that allows the defendant to defend themselves, it is under a duty to stop the case, no matter how serious the allegations may be. Hence, this must be very carefully considered when deciding whether to grant victim or witness anonymity—fair, equal and open justice for all must be the imperative.

While I have every sympathy for the noble Lord’s objective of protecting vulnerable victims and witnesses, I hope he will accept that the blanket approach provided for in his amendment is fundamentally at odds with our system of justice and the right of the accused to a fair trial. It is important to remember that the accused is just that: accused. He or she is not convicted, and is presumed innocent until proved guilty. This amendment arguably assumes guilt and undermines the protections and safeguards against miscarriages of justice of which this country is justly proud. Moreover, there are already a number of mechanisms available by which victims and witnesses can be supported through the criminal justice process. Given these points, I hope that the noble Lord will be content to withdraw his amendment.