"We ought to protect witnesses as much as we can," according to Cllr John Hearne.
The expanded Waterford Courthouse ought to make provision for ensuring the comfort and safety of witnesses during court cases, according to a City & County Councillor.
John Hearne (SF), who has been particularly vocal in relation to criminality in Waterford since first taking his Council seat in 2011, said provision ought to made for safe court access for witnesses during criminal cases.
“I’d like to think that the redeveloped court house, given the additional space that will be made through its expansion, can make life a little easier for witnesses during cases,” he said.
“Firstly, given the manner in which people can assemble on the steps of the court, something which they are free to do of course, maybe an additional access point into the court premises could be made available for witnesses.
“Going into court to give evidence in a high-profile criminal case can be a nerve-wracking experience; not too many of us would ever think about being in such a position, but if it’s something that someone has to do, then we ought to do all we can to make a person feel as safe and secure as they can on such a day in court.”
Cllr Hearne continued: “So with that in mind, a ‘back gate’ entrance into the courthouse ought to be considered, I feel, so that witnesses don’t have to pass by a good deal of people on the steps of the court who may be connected to the accused.
“Secondly, when you think about the layout of the court as we know it, once you’re inside the front door, and you’re waiting to be called, witnesses end up sitting in the company of the people they’ll have passed by the steps, and that’s a very uneasy atmosphere to be in. It also means there’s the potential for something unwelcome or upsetting to be said or worse, and no-one should find themselves feeling intimidated. And even if you’re called into one of the interview rooms just off the main waiting area down in the courthouse, you’re visible through the door to whoever else is waiting outside. It’s hardly ideal.”
Cllr Hearne added: “So I would hope that in the new layout, a ‘safe room’ so to speak for witnesses, away from the mass of people who can, from time to time, assemble outside a court chamber, might also be provided for in the courthouse.
“When you think how long it can take the Guards to get a criminal matter into court, and when you think how long it can take to see an arrest and then an investigation lead to a conviction, there’s an onus on the State to do everything it can to ensure its done its bit when it comes to securing a prosecution – and surely part of that means valuing and protecting a witness.
“I’d go even further than these suggestions too, when you consider that cases in the city and county more often than not mean there’s a local person in the dock and another local person or persons giving evidence against them: we ought to have ‘safe houses’ for witnesses to ensure they’re not intimidated in the weeks or even months leading up to a case.”
John Hearne concluded: “A lot of people think the law in this country tends to favour the accused. Whether that’s the case or not in reality, surely if we take steps to protect witnesses as much as we can, then we might go some way to redrawing that balance, as far as the public is concerned.”
The ‘Witness Security Programme’ was created in 1997 following the murder of journalist Veronica Guerin and, according to a report posted in The Journal in March, has cost the State €5 million since 2010.