Civil courts get new powers to tackle yobs

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The Independent Online

Every region of England and Wales is to have a special court run by magistrates trained to handle disputes involving gangs of yobs or disruptive neighbours.

Every region of England and Wales is to have a special court run by magistrates trained to handle disputes involving gangs of yobs or disruptive neighbours.

The courts will have the power - unique in civil cases - to allow witnesses to give evidence by video or be screened from view, to protect them from intimidation.

The announcement expected later today from the Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, will mark another step in the Government's campaign against anti-social behaviour.

There are already 12 magistrates courts in England and one in Wales which hold special sessions in which complaints about anti-social behaviour can be given fast-track treatment. Lord Falconer will announce that their number is to rise from 12 to 41.

Later in the week, Tony Blair and David Blunkett will deliver a report on legislation introduced a year ago to combat anti-social behaviour.

Since January, the courts have issued 400 dispersal orders, directed at gangs of youths whose behaviour has provoked complaints from residents. The orders give the police the power to arrest the youths if they reassemble at the place where they have previously caused trouble.

The authorities want more people who suffer harassment to take their complaints to court, and are hoping that the power to screen witnesses will encourage them.

They were particularly impressed by the stand taken last year by residents in three troubled streets in the Failsworth area of Manchester, who identified and prosecuted the local troublemakers.

They found the abuse and intimidation increased as the powers of the law came into effect. But they stood their ground, ensuring that anti-social behaviour orders were placed on gang's ringleaders.

"If we can't get witnesses to come to court then we can't impose justice on the area," a spokeswoman for the Department of Constitutional Affairs said yesterday.

In a statement released by Downing Street, Mr Blair said: "The powers to tackle anti-social behaviour are starting to make a difference, but there is more we need to do for the law-abiding citizens."

Lord Falconer said: "We must do all we can to give people the confidence to tackle anti-social behaviour in their communities. I'm not prepared to see law-abiding citizens intimidated."

Though ministers see anti-social behaviour orders (Asbos) as a vital weapon in the campaign against yob culture, others have criticised their use by local councils.

Rod Morgan, who took over as head of the Youth Justice Board in April this year, told the Independent on Sunday that they had played a worrying role in increasing the number of young people in custody.

"What we mustn't do is use them as a short-cut to get kids into custody - in the sense that a very large number of conditions are attached to Asbos so that we, in effect, are setting up youngsters to fail. Despite the fact that it's a civil order, in the event of a breach, it can very easily result in custody," he said.