DPP warns of 'vulnerable' witnesses

A JUSTICE system where decisions of guilt or innocence are based on the fortitude of witnesses rather than the truth of allegations should not be permitted, the Director of Public Prosecutions says.

Addressing last week's Tom Sargant memorial lecture for law reform group Justice, CPS head Barbara Mills QC said everyone in a trial had a right to justice but “regrettably, from time to time, counsel overstep the mark of courteous, firm cross examination”.

“There are many witnesses who are extremely vulnerable,” said Mills.

“Judges have a very important role in ensuring that vulnerable victims are not overwhelmed by the system, or by the people who operate within that system. I am not suggesting special treatment, but merely recognition that many witnesses have undergone an extremely traumatic experience.”

Mills said the “primary aim” of the system was that innocent people should not be tried, and safeguards must be built in to the process to ensure it. She added that the issue of disclosure continued to present problems and, in recent years, the law surrounding it had “extended at a rapid and almost uncontrollable pace”.

“No-one for one moment would dispute the necessity of disclosure to safeguard the defendant's right to a fair trial,” said Mills. “To protect an innocent person being wrongfully accused, it is essential that he or she should have access to material which can cast doubt on the prosecution case, or even go so far as to establish innocence. But at the same time prosecution duties should be “capable of being fulfilled,” she said.