Anger mounts among police at injustice of courts system

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The Independent Online

Anger and frustration at the perceived injustice meeted out in the country's courts have finally pushed Britain's police chiefs into action.

During the past six months some of the most powerful and influential voices in policing have been speaking out against the criminal justice system. They say that once a prosecution reaches court, the odds are stacked against them. The prosecution has an uphill struggle from the start, the police say. This includes the vast amount of evidence the prosecution lawyers have to hand to the defence; the treatment of witnesses, who frequently find the experience of court something they never want to repeat, and the leniency shown by magistrates who repeatedly free alleged muggers on bail, allowing them to reoffend.

The victims and witnesses are treated with "contempt", Sir John Stevens, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, says. Radical reforms are needed, says Sir David Phillips, the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, among the chief architects for change.

But are the police merely crying foul because their evidence is poor and they cannot win on a level playing field?

There is no doubt chief constables have been stung by recent criticism from David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, at the low detection rates in many forces. And Sir John is struggling to stem the huge surge in street crime and violence by teenagers that has swept London.

The Home Office says it is taking action on most of the issues raised by the police, although many experts in the criminal justice system believe the Government has dragged its feet on reform and the police believe they have merely tinkered at the edges. Lawyers, not surprisingly, say the criminal justice system has evolved over centuries and ensures everyone gets a fair trial.

It is also hard to argue that courts are soft on criminals at a time when record numbers of people are being locked up in prison, with the total rapidly approaching 70,000. England and Wales now equal Portugal as Europe's biggest jailers. But the police have highlighted several issues that cause concern with the public.

Sir John said yesterday that witnesses were more frightened of testifying in court than being a victim of crime. Recent studies support the Commissioner's view. Of 140 witnesses called to court in London in a two-week period, only 19 appeared to give evidence, one survey shows. Home Office research has also found 40 per cent of witnesses felt intimidated by the defendant or lawyer, rising to 57 per cent for children. A Mori survey last year suggested 62 per cent of schoolchildren believed they would be assaulted if they helped the police.

Governments have repeatedly pledged to give witnesses a better deal. Laws have been introduced to give alleged rape victims more protection and to restrict cross-examination by their alleged attackers. Vulnerable witnesses, such as children, have greater protection behind screens; they can testify on video links, and judges and barristers take off their wigs to appear less intimidating.

The police want reviews of the codes of conduct for barristers and solicitors; to give prosecutors a right of appeal in serious cases where rulings result in cases collapsing and to force defence lawyers to join prosecutors in disclosing the contents of their case. There is also a witness intimidation review being done.

Many of the proposals have already been suggested by Lord Justice Auld in his review of the criminal courts commissioned by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg. The Government is to publish a White Paper based on the Auld recommendations within months.

As the jails reach bursting point it appears increasingly likely that the courts will be encouraged to jail fewer rather than more people on what are considered "minor" offence or while awaiting trial. Last week Mr Blunkett said repeat offenders aged 12 to 17 could wear electronic tags, a policy the police said was ineffectual.

David Blunkett was reported last night to have asked the Chancellor for extra cash to fund his ambitious plans for reform of prisons, asylum services and the police.

But Gordon Brown is said to be reluctant to give him more cash in the Government?s spending review without further evidence that the money can help deliver results.