Legal reform will speed justice in criminal courts

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The Independent Online

Judges will crack down on barristers who take too long in their cross-examination of witnesses, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, announced yesterday when he launched the biggest shake-up of the criminal courts this century.

Judges will crack down on barristers who take too long in their cross-examination of witnesses, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, announced yesterday when he launched the biggest shake-up of the criminal courts this century.

Lord Irvine said he also wanted to move away from the "no blame culture" that existed between the Crown Prosecution Service, the police and defence lawyers. Delay and inefficiency in the criminal justice system were to be the key targets in a review to be chaired by Lord Justice Auld, a senior Lord Justice in the Court of Appeal.

The Lord Chancellor said his own experience of a tour of the criminal courts had shown that there was a "no blame culture where you could never really pinpoint where responsibility lies for a trial not taking place". Cracked cases, where the defendant changed plea from not guilty to guilty just before the start of the trial, and ineffective hearings cost the taxpayer millions of pounds.

Lord Irvine said greater co-operation was needed between the prosecution agencies and the defence to change the culture and reduce the number of those kinds of cases. But he added: "Judges will have to bear down on excessively long cross-examinations."

Lord Justice Auld should consider any changes thatmight make the courts more "modern and in touch with the communities they serve." The Lord Chancellor said judges' wigs and the predominance of legal Latin were also to be included in the review.

Last week the Attorney General, Lord Williams of Mostyn, called for a more accountable criminal court service that gave a better deal to witnesses and victims. He said he was in favour of witnesses having pagers so that they did not have to spend hours and sometimes even days waiting in court buildings to be called to give their evidence.

Lord Irvine said yesterday that he was sure the "care of victims and witnesses" was something Lord Justice Auld would consider.

The review is to be modelled on Lord Woolf's reforms of the civil courts, which came into force in April. These were intended to speed up justice and reducing costs. Lord Irvine said he greatly admired the changes brought about by the Master of the Rolls, the benefits of which were already coming through. It would be inconceivable if Lord Auld should not consult Lord Woolf on the review of the criminal courts, he added.

He said the review would ensure that the criminal courts delivered justice "fairly, by streamlining all their processes, increasing their efficiency and strengthening the effectiveness of their relationships with others across the whole of the criminal justice system".

The review is the first time that the work of the magistrates' courts and the crown courts are to be looked at as one rather than as two separate jurisdictions.

There have been suggestions that the criminal courts might sit beyond their present hours of 10.30am to 4.30pm or even on Saturdays. But the Lord Chancellor said the existing hours were the "maximum you could expect juries to sit hearing evidence".

He said the review should not be seen as a threat to magistrates' courts, which heard 94 per cent of all criminal cases and which he supported. At a recent meeting with Italy's justice minister, the Lord Chancellor said he was told that the Italians were studying the English system of lay magistracy with a view to following it.