I have no reason to doubt that Mr Justice Wilkie is a good judge. However, his handling of the Levi Bellfield trial, which ended yesterday, was not one of his finest performances. The treatment of the Dowler family by defence counsel Jeffrey Samuels QC, was disgraceful. By all accounts his cross-examination was aggressive, unnecessarily intrusive and hurtful. It caused the family considerable distress. One family member actually collapsed after leaving the witness box. The Dowlers said they suffered a “mentally scarring experience on an unimaginable scale”.
Today, there is widespread revulsion at the treatment of the Dowlers and there are calls for the system to be changed. The director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC, said it raised “fundamental questions” and said he would examine how victims were treated.
But does the system need to be changed? Probably not. The defence counsel would argue that he did his best for his client and acted within the rules. The fact that “very useful operator” Jeffrey Samuels QC, as he is described on his chamber’s website, overstepped the mark in his cross-examination is a matter for the judge. The judge is in charge of the conduct of a trial. It is his job to ensure that over-zealous QCs who use high-profile trials to further their own interests, are reined in. Mr Justice Wilkie failed to intervene, not necessarily to comment on the questions that were being asked, but the way in which they were being put to a very traumatised family.
Let’s hope Her Majesty’s judges, and Mr Justice Wilkie in particular, learn from this unfortunate trial. If they fail to conduct trials properly, it will be extremely difficult to persuade witnesses to give evidence.