More efforts are in the pipeline to strengthen the Territory’s Witness Protection programme and Commissioner of the Royal Virgin Islands Police Force (RVIPF) Michael Matthews has noted that these anonymity advancements are one of the reasons the BVI is a safe place to live.
The Commissioner made the comment during his speech at BVI Finance’s Lunch and Learn series that was held on 23 September. Matthews while acknowledging that sometimes observers of a crime are reluctant to come forward he mentioned that the BVI has a Witness Protection programme. Furthermore, Matthews explained that legislation is being considered to allow witnesses to appear before the courts without revealing their identities.
When the witness protection legislation was passed in 2011 it was described as evidence of the Territory’s maturity. However, over time it was suggested that there was a need to further extend the provision.
Mention of such a plan to advance the witness protection offering in the Territory emerged in March this year when it was announced that the previous administration made the decision to instruct the Attorney General’s Chambers to begin drafting Witness Anonymity legislation.
In last year’s Speech from the Throne – delivered by His Excellency Governor Augustus Jaspert on 13 September – mention was made of ‘Witness Anonymity Legislation.’ The Governor said that such a legislation was going to be introduced. This legislation, the Queen’s Representative said, was “to ensure the protection of witnesses and the preservation of their rights by the provision for a court to make a witness anonymity order to protect the safety of the witness, prevent damage to property, and prevent real harm to the public interest.”
The most resounding call for advancement to the Territory’s Witness Protection service was made by the Director of Public Prosecutions Kim Hollis Q.C. at the special sitting of the Supreme Court to mark the opening of the 2016 – 2017 Law Year of the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court.
The Director of Public Prosecutions mentioned that there is already provision to allow witnesses to give their evidence by video link, which is the preferred method of dealing with witnesses in sexual offences. However, she noted that she intended to extend special measures applications to include other serious offences.
The act allows for a witness whose evidence is likely to be diminished by reason of “fear” or distress to be screened from the accused and the public while giving evidence. There have been few applications and indeed the power has not been used since 2011. In the future more applications will be made by the prosecution to screen a vulnerable or intimidated witness from the court.
“Additionally, in order to supplement the availability of Special Measures within our courts, I have proposed that specific legislation be introduced in relation to Witness Anonymity in Criminal Proceedings which should be introduced as a new statutory special measure,” the DPP said.
In making the call for a more enhanced Witness Protection programme Hollis said: “In order to combat the continual growth of serious crime I have proposed, and hope that it will be swiftly enacted, some important legislative changes in order to give the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Courts effective tools in relation to trials where witnesses are either vulnerable or in need of special protection.”
The DPP acknowledged the issues associated with Witness Protection and explained that the anonymity advancement will address some of the concerns: “There is a degree of unreality in submissions that witness relocation would normally provide a practicable alternative to an anonymity order, as by definition witnesses would be cut off from all their roots , and have to start completely new lives as would their spouses or partners and children . The interference with the life of any such citizen would be tumultuous and would effectively penalize him from doing his duty as a citizen “
“The Act would enable anonymity orders to be made in order to protect the identity and thus the safety of any witness who may otherwise be in fear or distressed about giving evidence. Although all-encompassing as far as offences are concerned, in particular it would assist in the successful prosecution of drug related or gang crime and has had a marked effect in the United Kingdom,” Hollis added.