Monday, 27 February 2012

Protecting Witnesses

Today the Leveson enquiry into press standards heard that the News of the World  had details of people in witness protection.  Read more about it here.

This month, it was revealed that in 2008, the Metropolitan police paid out £550,000 to a teenage witness whose details were passed by prosecutors to the people he was testifying against. The boy and his family had to flee their home and go into witness protection. Read more about it here.

Earlier this month, a report by the Her Majesty's Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate (HMCPSI) and Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) found that young witnesses were 'left to flounder' in the criminal justice system, with vulnerable young witnesses often denied the opportunity to testify by videolink. Read more about it here.

Changes to the legal aid system means that young witnesses put at risk like the one compensated in 2008, will no longer be funded to sue for compensation. His family say that he no longer trusts the criminal justice system and if he were to witness a crime today (he is now 24) he would not make a statement.

When I wrote When I Was Joe and Almost True, I wondered if I was being unfair to the police in making the witness protection scheme seem, well, not exactly 100% perfect. American readers have expressed their surprise to me that, as one librarian put it, 'the witness protection scheme is so flaky in the UK.' But I'd worked on a newsdesk and I'd talked to lawyers and I knew about shot witnesses, betrayed witnesses, dodgy mobile phone networks and suchlike.

 The hardest question for me to anwer on school visits is the one which goes 'If you witnessed a crime, would you give evidence, even if it put your life at risk?' I know what I should say -  but I don't know what I would do.