20 December 1999
Most columns look back at this point in a millennium. This one will look forward. Not a long way, mind you: only as far as the year 2000. But what a year it will be.
First, the old favourites. Myra Hindley will be back in court, challenging the Home Secretary's decision that she should never be freed. It's more than a year since the moors murderer lost in the Court of Appeal: watch for a hearing before the Law Lords early in the new year.
Then there's General Pinochet. The Divisional Court has set aside a week to hear his application for habeas corpus, starting on 20 March. When the former Chilean dictator was first arrested, I remember asking a lawyer whether it might take months to resolve his case. "Years" was the reply. I didn't report his answer at the time, suspecting that people wouldn't believe it. General Pinochet is about to celebrate his second Christmas under house arrest. Who would have thought it?
In May it's off to The Netherlands again for the Lockerbie trial. Not that we may see much of the first Scottish trial to be held outside Scotland. The prosecution wants its key witness Abdul Malik Abdul Razkaz Abdul-Salam Giaka to give evidence from behind a screen, out of sight of the closed circuit television cameras and with his voice electronically distorted. US officials responsible for keeping his identity a secret also wanted to give him a wig, false beard, and heavy stage make-up.
We know this because that's how Mr Giaka looked when defence solicitors went to interview him. One might think it was contempt of court for the defence to approach prosecution witnesses. But what's prohibited in England seems compulsory in Scotland: instead of receiving witness statements from the prosecution, the defence have to interview the witnesses themselves. In Scotland it's called precognition. We shall all be learning a lot of Scots law in the months ahead. But we may find the Lockerbie case a little difficult to follow. That's because advocates in Scotland don't make opening speeches, outlining what they seek to prove. Instead, all you get is a written indictment. With the world's media trying to follow the Lockerbie trial, the Lord Advocate should abandon tradition and ask the court for permission to introduce his case.
Back to the future. With the Michael Ashcroft v Times Newspapers libel action now settled, those who enjoy an afternoon in Court 13 will have to wait for the case ITN is bringing against a rather smaller journal, LM magazine. The monthly paper is vigorously contesting defamation proceedings started by the TV company three years ago.
For the Lord Chancellor, there will be two major landmarks in the year 2000. In April, Lord Irvine's Community Legal Service will be launched, with a new Legal Services Commission replacing the Legal Aid Board. And in October, the Human Rights Act comes into effect. Although a major programme to train the judges gets under way next month, what they'll make of their new powers is anyone's guess.
Despite that, Lord Irvine is looking increasingly relaxed and at ease with himself these days. His new millennium's resolution should be to stop making arch jokes at his own expense about wallpaper and the like. If he draws a line under the past, so will we.
Joshua Rozenberg is the BBC's legal affairs correspondent. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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