Bill Extends Powers to Suppress the Identity of Witnesses

  • Doug Graham
Associate Minister of Local Government

The Minister of Justice, Hon D.A.M. Graham, today introduced legislation to protect witnesses in criminal proceedings.

The Evidence (Witness Anonymity) Amendment Bill provides for anonymity orders for pre-trial hearings and High Court trials. The new powers will apply to charges laid before the date of enactment and to charges re-laid on or after that date.

The existing powers for pre-trial protection of witnesses are both extended and clarified and will enable evidence to be given at a preliminary hearing by different modes such as closed-circuit television.

Mr Graham said he appreciated that some people would find the Bill contentious because it erodes the defendant's right to know the identity of prosecution witnesses.

'However, witnesses also have rights and one of the most basic is that they are able to give their evidence without fear of intimidation or retaliation.

'There is ample evidence that witnesses are being intimidated and we cannot allow that to continue.

'A recent Court of Appeal case has held that the Court had no inherent power to allow witnesses to give evidence without disclosing their names and addresses. It is therefore time for Parliament to give the Court this power.'

The Bill will enable a witness to give evidence without having to state in Court his or her name, address or occupation.

An anonymity order can only be made if the Judge is satisfied that there is a real risk that the safety of the witness or any other person will be endangered or that there will be serious damage to property in circumstances endangering the safety of any person.

'The Judge must also be satisfied either that there is no reason to believe that the witness has a motive or tendency to be untruthful or that the witness's credibility can be tested properly without disclosure of their identity.

'The Judge must also be satisfied that the order would not deprive the accused of a fair trial,' he said.

'Other factors to be considered include the gravity of the offence and the importance of the witness's evidence to the case.'

The Bill also provides for the appointment of independent counsel to assist Judges in their consideration of applications for anonymity orders.

Parties to the proceedings may appeal against an anonymity order or against a refusal to make an order.

Mr Graham said he believed that the new legislation struck the right balance between the rights of the accused and the rights of witnesses to give evidence free from the fear of intimidation.