New security force to protect judges in court reforms

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The Independent Online

Judges are to be protected by a new security force whose officers will have wide powers to detain and search the public.

Judges are to be protected by a new security force whose officers will have wide powers to detain and search the public.

Ministers announced a radical overhaul of the courts system in England and Wales yesterday, in which the new force will be responsible to the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, who wants uniformed officers to patrol the courts and act as a powerful deterrent to violent offenders who threaten judges and their staff.

He said he was very concerned at a recent attack on a female judge at the Old Bailey, where a defendant broke out of the dock.

Lord Irvine hoped that the security officers, who will be drawn from private companies as well as the Court Service, would also help to end intimidation of victims. The officers will be given limited powers under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act augmented with the right of a citizen to make a civil arrest.

He rejected the idea that this was his own private police force or that he was taking on powers akin to those of Henry VIII. He said: "If people think I have powers similar to Henry VIII, then I couldn't care less ... I find it remote that I am their [the new officers'] employer but as the minister I will be accountable to Parliament for their administration."

Under further changes published by the Government yesterday in its Courts Bill, court officials will be able to increase fines by up to 50 per cent if defaulters fail to pay on time.

The new fines officers will be appointed at every court in England and Wales and will have the power to deduct fines from offenders' benefits or wages. They will also be able to employ bailiffs to seize offenders' property or clamp and sell their cars if they do not pay.

But those who pay quickly will be rewarded with reductions in their punishment in a parking ticket-style system designed to encourage prompt payment. Those who truly cannot pay will be given alternative punishments, such as unpaid work in the community.

This week, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee reported that £148m was written off by magistrates' courts last year, and that this was "undermining the effectiveness of the criminal justice system". The chairman of the committee, Edward Leigh, the Tory MP for Gainsborough, said it was "simply unacceptable that the payment of a fine has become almost a voluntary activity".

He added: "Fines are a punishment and should in theory deter offenders, but a haphazard approach to their collection is far from a deterrent and must be addressed as a matter of urgency."

The new fines officers form part of the biggest shake-up of the court system in England and Wales for decades, and builds on last year's criminal justice report by Lord Justice Auld. Judges will also be given the power to impose a hefty fine on anyone who deliberately or negligently causes a criminal trial to collapse.