Criminal Evidence Bill is breach of natural justice, says pressure group

Opponents of a new Bill allowing courts to stop a defendant cross-examining a witness – regardless of the crime – and to force defence lawyers on defendants say that it breaches natural justice and civil liberties.

Widespread publicity surrounded section 33 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Bill, which allows courts to prevent defendants cross-examining alleged rape victims.

It was criticised by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham, as the Bill went through its Lords committee stage.

But several Lords along with pressure group, Liberty, claim separate measures giving courts the power to ban defendants from cross-examining witnesses and force them to take on defence lawyers, are even worse.

Liberty's legal officer Mary Cunneen tells The Lawyer: “We're very critical of these measures.”

Liberty is not even happy about alleged rapists being prevented from cross-examining witnesses.

But at least rape victims are “an absolutely special category because of the nature of the offence”, she adds.

“We don't think this procedure should extend to other forms of offence. It is too much of an erosion of every defendant's rights.”

She adds: “The biggest incursion of a person's civil liberties the state can make is to lock them up. Defendants should have the right to defend themselves against that in the way they consider best.”

There are practical difficulties, she says, involved in “foisting” a lawyer on someone – particularly as some lawyers “are less able than they should be”.

Lord Ackner, who unsuccessfully tried to remove the offending clause from the Bill during the committee stage, says: “I submit that the Government is over-egging the pudding.

“Having achieved… an absolute bar in rape cases, the temptation to extend this further should be resisted.”