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Does the Law Protect Vulnerable Witnesses?

The English criminal justice system is often described as the best in the world. Unfortunately however, because it is an adversarial system, vulnerable witnesses (especially victims of sexual assaults) do not always get a fair deal. In such cases the system does not always ‘convict the guilty and acquit the innocent.’ Various improvements to help vulnerable witnesses (not only victims) have been applauded in a recent Court of Appeal case however. Also a recent Code of Good Practice contains some excellent principles.

 For example it might not be fair to be allowed to put highly suggestive but imprecise leading questions to a witness who has severe learning difficulties or one who suffers from a certain form of autism. Consider the difference between ‘you’re not telling the whole truth’ and ‘you’re not telling the truth about this’. The latter question is so much clearer. Nor can it be fair to put complicated ‘tag questions’, (‘you’re not telling the whole truth, are you?’). It is the addition of the words ‘are you’ which makes the question a tag. Consider the horrendous tag question ‘You liked it when she spoke to you and he touched you, didn’t he?’ The additional words may have rendered the question virtually unintelligible to those with a learning disability, because they could relate to the speaking, the touching or both. On the other hand it would not be fair to force the advocate to pose two questions (rather than one) if he is seeking to describe an enjoyment of the simultaneous acts of speaking and touching.

 Apart from in very limited circumstances there are no laws which require a witness or a victim to report a crime to the police. The approach taken by the law is that there is ‘freedom of choice’, although in reality the ‘freedom’ is often extremely restricted and the ‘choice’ is either non existent or of the ‘Hobson’s’ variety! Take for example victims of blackmail or people who have witnessed or experienced terrorist activity. Very often, for them, making a report to the police can literally be the difference between life and death. Of course the new policies and the existing laws may to a certain extent give protection, but sometimes the pool of possible informants is so small that it would not take Einstein or even Inspector Clouseau much difficulty to work out who did it!

 Very often it is said that our criminal justice system is the best in the world. For that to be really true however, we have to ensure that absolutely no one is afraid to travel the fabled road to justice.

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