How the courts will be given greater power to convict

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The scales of justice in the courtrooms of England and Wales tilt heavily in favour of the defendant, the Government believes. So the White Paper that ministers will unveil next week will represent an unprecedented effort to help police and prosecutors secure a higher rate of convictions.

The scales of justice in the courtrooms of England and Wales tilt heavily in favour of the defendant, the Government believes. So the White Paper that ministers will unveil next week will represent an unprecedented effort to help police and prosecutors secure a higher rate of convictions.

The changes, the document claims, are being made not so much in the interest of the prosecuting authorities but of the people who are hardest hit by criminals. "We will put the victims, who suffer most from crime, at the heart of the system," it says.

The paper, which follows a review of the system last year by Sir Robin Auld, a Court of Appeal judge, outlines what it describes as "a wide-ranging programme of reform".

It states: "The paper shows our absolute determination to create a system that meets the needs of society and wins the trust of citizens, by establishing the truth, delivering justice and cutting crime."

THE NEED FOR REFORM

The opening chapter sets the tone for the rest of the White Paper by claiming that "far too many people escape justice".

It admits that public confidence in the criminal justice system has fallen and that "less than half the public believes [it] ... is effective".

Acknowledging that street crime (revealed yesterday in government statistics to have risen 28 per cent in the year to April) is an "intractable problem", the paper claims that "really important lessons" are being learnt by police specialising in tackling the robbers.

A BETTER DEAL FOR VICTIMS AND WITNESSES

In the second chapter, the paper addresses the need to protect the rights of victims and witnesses in the legal process.

It notes that victim satisfaction with police has fallen from 67 per cent in 1994 to 58 per cent in 2000. "Many victims feel that the rights of those accused of a crime take precedence over theirs and have said that they have felt 'left in the dark', vulnerable, intimidated and frustrated," it states.

It says victims are "vital witnesses" and that 40 per cent of witnesses say they would not want to give evidence in court again, citing concerns over intimidation and cross-examination. The paper claims that 30,000 cases were abandoned in 2001 because victims and witnesses "refused or failed to give evidence in court".

It promises a code of practice for victims, a right of appeal to the Parliamentary Ombudsman, and a new commissioner for victims and witnesses.

ENGAGING THE PUBLIC

The paper acknowledges that the public is increasingly withdrawing from the legal process, with fewer than half of those summoned for jury service taking part.

The paper proposes laws to cut the wide-ranging exemptions from jury service. Currently, groups such as lawyers and clergy are prevented from serving, which limits the availability of middle-class jurors. The catchment areas of juries are also to be reviewed to make them more representative (which could lead to race-sensitive cases being moved to areas where they would be heard by juries of more mixed ethnicity). A non-emergency number for the police will be introduced for non-emergency cases and a unified legal code drawn up to help people understand the criminal law.

GETTING THE PROCESS RIGHT AT THE START

The White Paper complains that police only detect 24 per cent of recorded crime and that the Crown Prosecution Service discontinues 13 per cent of cases passed to it by the police. The document states: "This is far too high and happens in part because cases have been badly prepared." In response, the Government will "provide for incentives and sanctions to promote effective and focused case preparation".

It will give the CPS responsibility for charging but, controversially, will "give the police power to impose conditions on bail before charge". Conditions could include wearing an electronic tag or reporting daily to a police station.

Both the defence and prosecution will be "obliged to disclose all material necessary" at trials.

DELIVERING JUSTICE – FAIRER, MORE EFFECTIVE TRIALS

The Government makes another attack on defence lawyers. "We will not tolerate abuse and obstruction of the system and we will not allow the process to be treated as a game of snakes and ladders by the defence as a tactic to get the defendant off," says the paper.

It complains that, in a study of magistrates' courts between April and June last year, "only 43 per cent" of trials proceeded to a verdict. "There are too many cases in which tactical manoeuvres, designed to secure acquittals by disrupting the process, mean the right verdict is not reached, and that is simply not good enough for a publicly accountable system that is there to do justice for victims and society."

The two tiers of Crown and magistrates' courts will be brought together under a unified administration but once-mooted plans for intermediate courts hearing cases without juries are not included in the White Paper.

The White Paper says defendants will be allowed to opt for trial by judge alone and judges will be able to act without a jury in cases involving complex fraud or where there is suspicion that the jury is being intimidated. Previously, if a jury had been "nobbled" the judge would order a retrial.

Crucially, individuals will face being tried for a second time for any "grave offence that would be punishable by imprisonment" if compelling new evidence came to light.

Previous reviews had suggested that this scrapping of the Double Jeopardy rule should only apply in murder cases.

The Government will also double the custodial sentencing powers of magistrates from six to 12 months, despite claims by prison governors that magistrates should not be allowed to jail people because little effective work could be done with offenders on short sentences.

The paper also promises consideration of setting up teams of lawyers and judges who specialise in cases of domestic violence and rape.

PUTTING THE SENSE BACK INTO SENTENCING

Chapter six is an acknowledgement that England and Wales has "one of the highest prison populations in Western Europe". It says it will introduce "new and innovative" sentences of Custody Plus (a short prison sentence plus a longer period of community-based penalty) and Custody Minus (a suspended sentence combined with a community-based penalty).

Weekend prison – known as "intermittent custody" – will also be introduced to allow offenders to continue working and maintain family ties from Monday to Friday.

PUNISHMENT AND REHABILITATION

The paper outlines plans to reduce reoffending. A "Going Straight" contract, suggested by the Government's social exclusion unit, will be introduced for young offenders under which they will helped to steer clear of crime.

The chapter also contains plans to "expand capacity in existing prisons" and build "multi-functional community" prisons that would allow different categories of prisoners to be held in jails close to their families.

It calls for custody to be used by sentencers as a "last resort" for young offenders.

JOINING UP THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM

The final chapter calls on the component parts of the justice system to work more closely together. It promises a new fully co-ordinated IT system by 2005 that would allow victims of crime to track the progress of their cases on the internet.