Police want law laid down in plain English

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The Independent Online

Crime Correspondent

Police chiefs want much of the country's criminal law - some of which they believe is "legal gobbledegook" - to be rewritten into plain English. They believe that vague and confusingly written laws have led to wrong judgments and made the legal system inaccessible.

Chief constables are to press the Government to introduce changes to the wording of the laws, many of which are more than 100 years-old, in England and Wales and introduce a new, single criminal code.

John Hoddinott, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, said: "The law ought to be for citizens, it should be accessible and easy to understand. [For example] you can't understand the law on assaulting people even in half an hour. We are talking about punching people, cutting them, or breaking their arm, but you would not understand that from reading the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. Even judges are not sure sometimes."

He added that it was a good example of "legal gobbledegook". Under the Act the definition of wounding or causing grievous bodily harm with intent is "whosoever shall unlawfully and maliciously by any means whatsoever wound or cause any grievous bodily harm to any person with intent to do some grievous bodily harm to any person, or with intent to resist or prevent the lawful apprehension or detainer of any person".

The police want the Act reformed - a measure proposed by the Law Commission, the Government's advisory body, in 1992, but not carried out. The police say gradual re- writing of criminal law should eventually lead to a criminal code or a single plain English.

The Association of Chief Police Officers argues that "it should be possible to agree plain English charges that are comprehensible to police officer, suspect, victim and citizen".

The recommendation to simplify legal language was one of a package of criminal justice measures that the association will be campaigning for in the coming year.

An agenda paper, In Search of Criminal Justice, published yesterday at its autumn conference in Coventry, also calls for greater use of video evidence in court, changes in the law to allow previous convictions and hearsay evidence to be admitted in court under certain circumstances, legislation on disclosure of evidence and binding pre-trial reviews, cutting down on the administrative work in courts and providing better treatment of victims and witnesses.

Civil rights lawyers are concerned about some of these proposed changes, particularly allowing the prosecution to disclose less evidence to the defence who will have to reveal more before the trial. They believe this will swing the legal system too far in favour of the police and prosecution.

Legal jargon

Under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 an assault is committed "when the defendant intentionally or recklessly causes his victim to apprehend the immediate infliction of unlawful force".