Witness protection program
The importance of protecting people who are at risk as a result of assisting law enforcement agencies is recognised worldwide. Without it, certain evidence would not be available to the courts, with some offenders avoiding conviction and the possibility of a person being wrongly convicted.
We are the only independent commission in Australasia with this responsibility. Elsewhere in Australia and New Zealand, witness protection programs are managed by state and territory police forces.
The value of evidence provided by victims of crime, innocent bystanders to a crime, and people who have information about criminal or corrupt activity (often because they are themselves associated with crime or corruption) cannot be overstated. Evidence provided in 2011–12 by individuals within the program was crucial in securing convictions in cases that included murder, drug trafficking and other drug related offences, assault and other offences of violence, and serious property offences.
Since our witness program began in 1987, we have protected over 1650 people, with a 100 per cent success rate by:
- providing them with close personal security inside and outside court
- enabling them to give their evidence via a video conference if this is appropriate
- relocating them and their relatives or associates if necessary
- in some cases, providing them with new identities.
Inclusion in the program
A person does not have to be a witness in a court of law to qualify for witness protection. Anyone who has put themselves and their families or associates in danger by helping a law enforcement agency may be eligible for protection. The relevant law enforcement agency usually applies to the CMC for protection on behalf of the witness.
Participation is voluntary — witnesses themselves make the final decision about whether or not to take part. Since by its nature the full program is restrictive, some people are unable or unwilling to do so for reasons such as family, financial or employment considerations. For others, the problem is the limitations imposed on personal lifestyles and networks. As such people are still likely to need help with their security and we can provide them with more flexible forms of assistance if necessary.
Once a person has been accepted into the program, the level of protection will differ depending on the type of danger to which the person is exposed.
Overall welfare of participants
Although the security of those we protect is paramount, we also put a high priority on meeting their day-to-day needs and overall welfare. For example, if they have problems such as drug or alcohol addiction, financial difficulties or family court matters, we ensure they have access to professional support services. Many witnesses have been rehabilitated as a direct result, and have credited this largely to the support provided by the program.
Eligibility for the program
The relevant law enforcement agency usually applies to us for protection on behalf of the witness. Under the Witness Protection Act 2000, our Chairperson (generally on the advice of the Witness Protection Advisory Committee which is chaired by an Assistant Commissioner of the Queensland Police Service) decides who to admit to the program by considering:
- the person’s criminal and medical/psychiatric history
- the seriousness of the offence and the extent of help provided
- the nature of the threat to the person
- previous applications for witness protection
- other methods of protection.
Under the Act, the Chairperson must not accept a person if:
- there is not enough information available to make a decision on their eligibility
- protection is being offered as a reward for giving evidence or making a statement.
As it can take up to eight weeks for a person to be formally admitted to the program, we usually offer interim protection within 48 hours of when we receive an application.