Attorneys to counter witness anonymity bill

Attorneys to counter witness anonymity bill
Wayne Munroe, QC.

Members of the legal fraternity are considering filing a constitutional motion against the recently passed Criminal Evidence (Witness Anonymity) Amendment Bill, claiming that the legislation is “dangerous” and infringes on the rights of the accused.

Noted criminal attorney Romona Farquharson-Seymour is among the group of lawyers speaking out against the bill, which was passed in the House of Assembly (HOA) earlier this week and is on its way to the Senate for debate.

“Everyone has a right to a fair hearing,” she said.

“Those who practice at the criminal bar, this is something that we are faced with. We were considering mounting a challenge – a constitutional motion is being discussed – and perhaps take it as far as the privy council because this is wrong.”

Farquharson-Seymour explained that there is great danger when one does not know who is accusing them of committing a crime.

The amendments affect section 11 (4) of the act “so that the prosecutor or the defendant may apply to the judge to permit a witness to be seen and heard in his natural voice by a magistrate, magistrate’s panel or by the judge, but not by the prosecutor, the defendant or his attorney, or by the jury”.

Farquharson-Seymour said, “We get the voluntary bill of indictment and it has the names Alpha Bravo of the persons that wishes to be anonymous, then the person comes to court, their voice is modulated so you don’t know if its male or female. You can’t see the person. You don’t know if that’s even a police officer giving evidence against you,” she explained.

The attorney argued that this makes the case of the defense difficult and she believes that many innocent people may be found guilty of “evidence that cannot be verified.”

Under the current act, “Nothing in this section authorizes the court to require the witness to be screened to such an extent that the witness cannot be seen by the magistrate, the judge or other members of the court, if any; or the jury, if there is one.”

Farquharson-Seymour’s dispute with the bill is supported by Wayne Munroe Q.C., who shared a similar view with Eyewitness News.

Meanwhile Works Minister Desmond Bannister, who tabled the bill, acknowledged that the legislation gives “teeth” to the present witness protection program, which has not been as effective as intended. This as a number of witnesses have been murdered before trials.

Bannister said the government recognizes that there may be constitutional challenges but it is prepared for them.

“We have to try to find every possible avenue to help them build up the courage to give evidence. If the court determines that its unconstitutional, then we will try something else,” Bannister said.

“We will not be deterred in this and we will keep trying.”