I fear police state if we lose safeguards, says Bar chief

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The Independent Online

The furore over the state of the criminal justice system continued yesterday when a barristers' leader warned that the country could become a "police state" if legal protections were undermined.

David Bean QC, chairman of the Bar Council, countered claims by chief constables that the court system was in an "appalling" state, and argued that the police should make a better job of investigating crime.

The leader of 10,000 barristers in England and Wales made the comments after Sir John Stevens, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, claimed judges, defence lawyers and court administrators rode roughshod over the rights of victims and witnesses.

In a strong rejection of Sir John's comments, Mr Bean said: "We've heard some extreme claims from the police in recent days. It's time to inject some balance into the debate.

"None of us want a police state, where the knee-jerk response to crime is to 'round up the usual suspects'. We've seen too many miscarriages of justice for that. But if we did unbalance the scales of justice we would, before long, be on the slippery slope to a police state." Addressing students at Portsmouth University, he added: "My members prosecute and defend in equal measure. They want a system that convicts the guilty and acquits the innocent. We'd like to see changes. Simple cases need to be brought to trial more quickly, so there's less need for bail.

"There are challenges for the police too, not least to investigate crime better, so the prosecution has reliable evidence to put before the court."

In his speech on Wednesday, Sir John had said: "The fact is that, all too often, the criminal trial is simply an uneven game of tactics played out by lawyers in front of an uninformed jury with the disillusioned victims and a bemused defendant looking on."

His comments are part of a campaign by police chiefs to influence the Home Office, which is drawing up a White Paper to reform the criminal justice system. It is also a backlash against David Blunkett, who has criticised the police for low detection rates. The Association of Chief Police Officers is further angered at proposed new laws to allow the Home Secretary the power to sack underperforming chief constables and to take over police divisions.

In his speech, Mr Bean, 48, said: "Blaming the lawyers is not a sensible answer to the Home Secretary's cause for reform of the working practices of the police."

He rejected Sir John's argument that cases frequently collapsed because of witness intimidation, citing the experience in two Crown Courts in London where one in five cases were delayed because of failures on the prosecution side. He added that four out of 57 trials during a three-week period had not gone ahead because the police witnesses failed to turn up. "This was presumably because they had not been warned; it can hardly be because they were intimidated," he said.

¿ An alleged kidnapping gang caught counting marked ransom loot was freed because of a technical fault in the way a detective filled out a form, the Chief Constable of Merseyside, Norman Bettison, revealed.He said five men arrested after a kidnapping in Liverpool last August were freed when they appeared at Liverpool Crown Court last month.

Their defence lawyers argued that when organising the taping of ransom demand phone calls and the surveillance of the suspects, the senior detective should have ordered a member of his team to apply for authorisation which he would then grant. Instead he applied for the authorisation himself and then granted it.

Police anger is likely to be increased by reports last night that David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, is considering implementing a recommendation of the Macpherson report into the Stephen Lawrence affair that police record all encounters with the public in which the officer asks the person "to give an account of their actions"?. Rank-and-file officers believe the move will increase bureaucracy and the potentional for confrontation.