Blair says UK courts must be reformed

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THE PRIME Minister has said he is determined that the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) will be reformed, saying that victims and witnesses in the criminal justice system are being treated unfairly.

Tony Blair's personal involvement follows a decision by the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) to launch a formal investigation into the CPS over alleged racism.

Mr Blair is most worried by the CPS's poor service to the public and a growing sense of public alienation in the prosecution process. He is understood to be particularly concerned that too often victims of crime are not given proper explanations as to why charges have been dropped or are not given fair warning of when they must appear in court.

Disclosing Mr Blair's decision to become personally associated with the reform, the Attorney General, Lord Williams of Mostyn, said that the Prime Minister considered the treatment of victims and witnesses by the CPS to be a "reproach" to the criminal justice system.

He added: "It's the first time we have had a prime minister who is interested in the criminal justice system. He is determined that the Crown Prosecution Service should be a recognised jewel in the system. It is important that he has a personal interest."

He said it was also crucial that victims understood why the CPS had decided to use one criminal charge rather than another.

A specially commissioned report on how the CPS can improve its service, based on six Crown Court pilot schemes, is expected in the new year. In the pilot scheme, victims of crime have met with prosecutors following a CPS decision to drop a case. The current practice is to inform victims and witnesses of CPS decisions by post.

The report will also consider issuing witnesses with pagers so that they can wait at home before being called to court. Thousands of pounds are wasted while witnesses and victims wait for days and sometimes weeks before giving their evidence.

The Attorney General said: "I'm afraid they have been regarded as optional extras in the criminal justice system and we can't have trials without victims and witnesses. They are not properly looked after, they are not given explanations, they are not given reasons."

Lord Williams said Mr Blair's personal interest had been welcomed by the Director of Public Prosecutions, David Calvert-Smith, and his staff at the CPS.

"It's great for them to think that there is someone in Number 10 who really wants to know what the problems are, what the under-resourcing is and how we can deliver better to victims and witnesses."

Witness and victim support groups welcomed the move to improve the relationship between the CPS and the public. Jenny Watson, of Victim Support, said there was concern that by neglecting the interests of the victim in a prosecution the CPS was contravening human rights legislation.

She added: "It would be very helpful if people understood why charges are being dropped rather than finding out through delay in the process or through their own initiative." She thought the reason the Prime Minister had taken an interest was because he had a legal background and could see how much "time and money" was being wasted in the courts.

The current investigation by the CRE will look at allegations of racism regarding the CPS's recruitment and promotion policy as well as its record of prosecutions.