As part of the debate currently taking place on the Policing and Crime Bill in the House of Lords, a very interesting idea is being discussed. The section, which could be inserted after clause 152 of the Bill, prevents a suspect accused of a serious violent or sexual crime from finding out the identity of a witness or person accusing them of the offence in question.
The latest draft of the clause reads:
The clause, moved by Lord Wigley, has been met with resistance by Government. Its argument against allowing the clause to pass is a human rights one: the fundamental right to a fair trial, which includes the right to know who is accusing you of a crime.
Baroness Chisholm, who is Lords Spokesperson for the Cabinet Office (and to that end representing the Government’s viewpoint on the issue) explains:
The Baroness goes on to say:
Lord Wigley then challenges the idea that the right to a fair trial includes the right to know the name of the person accusing you. He suggests that knowledge of the accuser’s name does not prejudice trial proceedings in any way and that as the accused may not have known the accuser’s name previously any how, identity is not material to a fair trial. Although this skirts the issue of the accused’s ‘right to know’ at the point at which the allegation is made, as the Baroness herself points out anonymity can already be granted where the alleged victim is considered to be at risk of harm if their identity is revealed.
Essentially, Baroness Chisholm’s argument is that the proposed clause is too broad and could lead to a breach of the accused’s Article 6 rights. She also feels there are enough protections in place so that the Clause is not needed. Baroness C highlights the measures on offer for victims today, which include detaining the accused for up to 96 hours before charge, bailing the suspect with conditions not to contact the accuser, witness protection programmes and witness anonymity orders.
Lord W’s view focuses on cases where the parties don’t know each other (‘stranger perpetrator’) and the gaps the current protections don’t seem to be filling in these kinds of cases. He mentions that the Metropolitan Police also accepts that there is a lack of clarity in this area. A formal statement from The Met:
The debate highlights an interesting tension between the presumption of innocence in law, and the reality on the ground for a genuine victim of abuse who may be at risk of more harm if the person who has harmed them in the first instance is able to find where they live using information available on the internet, for example. And that is the point Lord Wigley is trying to make. With the onset of the internet, and modern technology generally, it has become much easier to track people down.
What do you think? Is Lord Wigley’s Clause a good idea, or is it a protection too far?