Dennis Cook/AP

U.K. Government Trying to Save Anonymous Testimony

June 27, 2008 10:08 AM
by Anne Szustek
The courts’ use of anonymous witnesses was struck down, but an emergency law to bring it back is being pushed through before Parliament’s summer recess.

30-Second Summary

The Law Lords, a group of legislators in Britain’s upper house of parliament, last week struck down the use of anonymous testimony during trials. The group ruled that “no conviction should be based solely or to a decisive extent upon the statements and testimony of anonymous witnesses.”

The British broadcaster reported that several high-profile murder trials have used evidence given from behind a screen and with voices altered with special equipment. Anonymous testimony has generally been used only when the witness’s safety is deemed at risk.

In the United States, the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution bans anonymous testimony in the courtroom, on the grounds that the defendant must be “confronted with the witnesses against him.” The Law Lords argued last week that the right of the accused to challenge their witnesses is also a basic tenet of British law.

The ruling has forced some cases into retrial, notably a £6 million (about $12 million) murder trial of two men.

The fear that the ruling will free criminals has lead to an emergency law, still in the process of being written, that would set clear rules as to when anonymous testimony is acceptable.

Jack Straw, U.K. Secretary of State for Justice, told the House of Commons, Britain’s lower legislative body, “The right of a defendant to confront his or her accusers in open court … is one which should only be modified where this is fully justified.”

The Guardian lauds the Law Lords’ decision and warns against rushing to write and pass a reactionary law: “Like good curry, good law is hard to cook up in haste.”

Headline Link: ‘New Witness Law Plans “In Days”’

Reactions: ‘Statement on the Anonymity of Witnesses’

Historical Context: U.S. Constitutional ban on anonymous witnesses

Opinion & Analysis: ‘Justice Behind the Screen’

Reference: Text of Law Lords ruling

Related Topic: ‘Mexico Overhauls Judicial System’


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