The government is placing victims and witnesses at the “centre” of the criminal justice system. The Law Reform, Victims and Witnesses Act will enable anonymity of victims and witnesses in court. Appearing in court is scary enough for most people. Those who are intimidated or vulnerable would be spared having to testify in person against the object of their fears. If more people are prepared to stand up in court, there will be more convictions. This is part of the government agenda to bring more offences to justice, reflecting public sentiment.

The inherent contradiction in this approach is that we also need to ensure that the defendant has a fair trial. It is essential that the defendant should know what he or she is accused of and who the witnesses are. A witness who is granted anonymity presents two types of problem. Firstly, the fact that special measures have been taken will indicate to the jurors that the defendant is regarded as intimidating. Secondly, the possibility of challenging the evidence is restricted. Of course, we can get more convictions if we are prepared to compromise on fairness, but is this what society really wants?

Sean Hodgson has just been released after 27 years in jail for a murder that he did not commit. He was not eligible for parole since it is conditional upon an admission of guilt. He refused to admit guilt on the not unreasonable grounds that he did not commit the crime. Even though he suffered from mental health problems, he maintained his integrity and dignity.

These “miscarriages of justice” always command considerable media interest reflecting the genuine public concern that the criminal justice system should be reliably accurate in identifying perpetrators. The fact that Hodgson had originally confessed to the crime, and provided details to the police which were not generally known, demonstrates why the original conviction was beyond reasonable doubt. The conviction has now been deemed unsafe following a review of the DNA evidence. This evidence could have been reviewed over the years, but never was. It took a determined new defence solicitor, instructed following an advert in the prison newspaper, to track it down. What this shows is the vital role of the defence. The rest of the criminal justice system has little incentive to uncover exculpatory material unless prompted.

The Oxford Dictionary of Modern English defines a victim as a person injured or killed as a result of an event or circumstance. Judging by his fragile state of health as he emerged down the steps of the Court of Appeal, the released man is a victim. He will be entitled to financial compensation although nothing can make up for his loss of freedom and health. The question we have to confront is whether we want to have more Sean Hodgsons in the future – people who will be convicted on the testimony of anonymous witnesses. The criminal justice system should accurately separate out the guilty from the innocent. Stacking the odds against some defendants is going to increase the number of wrongful convictions.
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