Bulletproof screens to be introduced in courtrooms

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COURTROOMS ARE to be fortified with bulletproof screens around the docks and electronic locks on the doors in an attempt to stop the record numbers of escapes by defendants.

Court clerks will also be equipped with panic buttons beneath their desks as part of a major review of security at courts in England and Wales by the Home Office.

At some courts the docks may be surrounded by a protective moat. The front dock wall will be raised and the handrail removed to make it harder to vault.

The Home Office minister Paul Boateng said the number of escapes by prisoners from magistrates' courts had risen from 22 in 1994 to 59 last year. So far this year there have been 63 escapes.

Mr Boateng, who recently assumed responsibility for prison and probation issues, said his views on the need to change the design of many of the 585 courts in England and Wales were shared by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg. He said: "We need to see a little less marble and oak and a little more concern with the nuts and bolts of security and facilities for victims and witnesses."

The Court Security Task Force, set up by the Association of Magisterial Officers to examine security, has just completed the first draft of a report due to be published at the end of the year. The plans would give judges, juries and witnesses greater physical protection against attacks.

Mr Boateng's tough talking, based on a belief that correction is not possible without containment, will concern jail reformers who are anxious that the prison service does not return to the "security, security, security" agenda which existed under the previous home secretary, Michael Howard.