Police accuse courts of protecting the guilty

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The Independent Online

Britain's most senior police officers clashed with the legal profession yesterday after they accused the criminal justice system of protecting the guilty and ostracising witnesses.

Britain's most senior police officers clashed with the legal profession yesterday after they accused the criminal justice system of protecting the guilty and ostracising witnesses.

The police chiefs proposed radical reforms for an "arcane" trial system, which they claimed was an uneven game that could be exploited by defence lawyers.

The attack on the judicial system by so many senior officers will also be seen as a rebuke to David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, for criticism he made recently of the police's record on convicting criminals.

But representatives for lawyers in England and Wales said that some of the proposed changes would threaten the "fundamental principles" of the legal system. In a wide-ranging assault on the conduct of trials, Sir David Phillips, the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, said that without the proposed reforms the criminal trial process would "remain a tangle of red tape and technicalities which ignores victims, witnesses and the truth".

Sir Charles Pollard, the Chief Constable of Thames Valley Police, and a spokesman for the Acpo Search for Truth campaign, said: "The courtroom has become too much the place for legal games to be played between lawyers, rather than for getting at the truth.

"All too often, particularly in serious crimes, the objective of the defence is to delay, to muddy the waters and to harass the prosecution, rather than to participate genuinely in an analysis of the available facts."

Among the proposed changes are new rules to compel barristers to "see a case through from beginning to end" to reduce delays.

The police also want reviews of the codes of conduct for barristers and solicitors; to give prosecutors a right of appeal in serious cases where rulings result in cases collapsing; and to force defence lawyers to join prosecutors in disclosing the contents of their case.

Sir John Stevens, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, called for improvements for witnesses, arguing that cases regularly collapsed or were discontinued because witnesses felt intimidated by defendants and their supporters.

In response, a Bar Council spokesman said: "The so-called Search for Truth campaign is a misnomer. A civilised society demands that criminal convictions should be secured beyond reasonable doubt, and that is not a game, it is a fundamental principle." Carolyn Kirby, the vice-president of the Law Society, which represents solicitors, added: "We do not accept that the current shortcomings are caused by defence lawyers exploiting loopholes in the law."

The director of the civil rights group Liberty, John Wadham, said that there was a vital need to protect defendants from injustice.

Many of the ideas raised by Acpo were suggested by Lord Justice Auld in his review of the criminal courts commissioned by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, which was published in October.

Meanwhile, Scotland Yard is expected to call today for separate courts to speed up the prosecution of persistent young offenders who consider themselves "untouchable" and are largely responsible for a huge growth in street crimes and thefts of mobile phones.