'Changes needed' to system after Milly Dowler trial

 

Chief Constable Mark Rowley: "If that's the rules, the rules aren't right"

The man who oversaw the Milly Dowler murder investigation says the justice system will be undermined if victims are not treated sensitively in court.

Milly's parents Bob and Sally Dowler criticised the way they were cross-examined in Levi Bellfield's trial.

Surrey Police Chief Constable Mark Rowley said he was "shocked" by their treatment and called for changes.

The director of public prosecutions said the case had raised "fundamental questions" that needed answering.

Keir Starmer QC said he would examine how victims were treated. "We will be contributing to the review by the Ministry of Justice into all aspects of victim support," he said.

'Too high a price'

Bellfield was given a whole life tariff by a judge at the Old Bailey on Friday for murdering 13-year-old Milly, who was abducted from Walton-on-Thames in 2002.

Details of the Dowler family's private life were revealed during his trial, including the fact that Milly discovered pornography magazines at the family home.

During the prosecution's closing speeches, Brian Altman QC accused Bellfield of putting Milly's grieving parents on trial.

Analysis

In recent years, much has been done to re-balance the criminal justice system to protect victims and witnesses.

For instance, it is now more common for a defendant's previous convictions to be put in evidence. There are now stricter limits on questioning the complainant in rape cases about their previous sexual history.

In addition, there are so-called "special measures" which allow witnesses to give evidence from behind screens or by video link so that court is less traumatic.

However, this latest trial of Levi Bellfield raises the question of whether, with all of that, the system remains unbalanced.

Under our adversarial system, defence barristers sometimes have to put defences that are thin, unattractive, and deeply personal. The judge has the power to stop any questions that are improper or oppressive.

This case raises the issue as to whether specific guidance is now needed where witnesses are being cross-examined on deeply personal matters.

The Dowlers said they had suffered a "mentally scarring experience on an unimaginable scale" during his trial and that they paid "too high a price" for the conviction.

Chief Constable Rowley admitted police made mistakes but told the BBC's Today programme the "dignity and care that is lost in the treatment of victims and witnesses in sensitive cases is startling".

He said: "People see, sometimes, the care of victims and witnesses as a nice moral add-on. It can't be that.

"They're the lifeblood of the system and unless we treat them carefully and thoughtfully, fundamentally it undermines the system.

"I'm not saying never go personal, but if you go personal then for goodness sake, think about the dignity of the people involved."

Chief Constable Rowley also said it was a "most bizarre and distressing coincidence" that as the Dowler family were having their privacy "destroyed" footballers were being granted super-injunctions.

But John Cooper QC, a barrister, said: "If this was happening all the time it would be worrying - but it's not always as traumatic as this.

"We should not allow Levi Bellfield to hijack the criminal justice system.

"Bellfield should not contaminate what is overall a decent system."

And Mark Leech, editor of the national prisoners' newspaper ConVerse, said: "There is no need for reform because the judge already acts as a safeguard to unnecessary and intrusive questioning."

He described the chief constable's reform call as "disingenuous" and an "unnecessary knee-jerk response from a police force which is embarrassed by the fact that it didn't act sooner to arrest Bellfield".

Milly Dowler Milly was abducted in 2002

Bellfield had also faced a charge of attempting to abduct Rachel Cowles, who is now 21, but the jury was discharged and there will be no retrial.

Defence lawyers cited an "avalanche of adverse publicity" following Bellfield's conviction on Thursday.

Chief Constable Rowley also revealed he had spoken to the family of Marsha McDonnell, 19, murdered by Bellfield 11 months after he killed Milly.

He said: "I told them there is some uncertainty about what could have been done differently at the start of the investigation.

"There's certain things I would like to have been done differently in terms of the house-to-house [inquiries] and the linking of incidents.

"I've apologised to them about that."

 

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Milly Dowler Murder Trial

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  • rate this
    +7

    Comment number 162.

    I watched with great sadness and much sympathy as the Dowlers let their hurt feelings show. Was it right what the defence were allowed to do to them? My heart says no but my head says that you need a strong stomach to see justice done. Well it has been. They have been very brave. I doubt there are any in the country who would not now wish to hug their hurt away if that were at all possible.

  • rate this
    +13

    Comment number 118.

    Our judicial system is as great and strong as it is because its central tenet is a presumption of innocence. Yet I fear that reaction in cases like this are taking us inexorably towards a presumption of guilt: victims need protecting because they are good people; defendants are evil and deserve all they get. A fair trial for the defendant is paramount, and we shift away from this at our peril.

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 51.

    Why are the police so quick to comment? They are public servants on one side of our adversarial system. Leave the politics to the politicians, if they have concerns I'm sure they will have the Home Secretary's ear.

    "Human rights - prisoners rights," surely a criminal trial is all about asserting the human rights of the wronged - ignore the defendant's & you risk making another innocent victim.

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 47.

    I did Jury service a while ago. It may not be perfect, but the adversarial system looked pretty good to me. The defence has a duty to present whatever evidence the judge allows them to. If some of that evidence is embarrassing to witnesses then that's tough. Sorry.

  • rate this
    +8

    Comment number 43.

    The Dowler family's extreme reaction to Bellfield's sentence is fully understandable. Free speech entitles them to say what is in their hearts and minds openly, and to show their pain. The nation is sympathetic.

    But bring back the death penalty? Britain decided a long time ago to treat crime in a mature and civilised manner - and nothing - however heinous - should change that.

 

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