Leading Article: A better criminal justice system

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The Independent Culture
GENERALLY THIS newspaper approves of Jack Straw. We have long been impressed by his grasp of policy detail in areas which matter a great deal to real people but which are regarded as unglamorous. Yesterday saw the first fruits of the new approach in the Home Office: the publication of a report proposing a complete overhaul of the way witnesses are treated by courts. The news coverage so far has concentrated on the planned changes to protect rape victims. But the number of cases where a woman is cross- examined by her alleged assailant in person is minuscule, whereas thousands of families' lives are made a misery by "low-level" intimidation and feel too frightened to pursue their tormentors through the courts for fear of making things worse. It is one of Mr Straw'sstrengths that he understands the nitty-gritty of the criminal justice system as it operates on the ground: endless adjournments caused by incompetence; defendants, plaintiffs, witnesses and their familiesmilling around in the same waiting rooms; witnesses not turning up because they have been intimidated.

The proposal to ban the cross-examination of rape victims except through a barrister is welcome. Automatic legal aid for a barrister should dispose of theargument that this denies the fundamental human right to defend oneself. But what will really make a difference to the 64,000 witnesses estimated to suffer some form of intimidation every year are the proposals for giving evidence by TV links or from behind screens, and for escorts and panic alarms for witnesses. More sensitive treatment of children and people with mental disabilities is also long overdue.

The important question to be asked is whether the admirable proposals in Mr Straw's report will be backed up with resources. They are not expensive in the sense that mass unemployment or aircraft carriers are expensive, and the return on public investment is great in relation to the sums spent, but the money will nevertheless have to be found.