Reforms driven by manifesto pledge to convict more criminals

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The Independent Online

Labur's 2001 manifesto pledge to convict 100,000 more criminals a year by the next election is the hidden agenda behind yesterday's reforms of the criminal justice system.

Labur's 2001 manifesto pledge to convict 100,000 more criminals a year by the next election is the hidden agenda behind yesterday's reforms of the criminal justice system.

Ministers know it is the one clear target by which the electorate can judge how successful the Government has been in delivering on law and order, a key battleground between Labour and Conservatives.

At the moment it is a battle Labour is losing. The most recent figures show that instead of "successfully prosecuting" more criminals each year the numbers have fallen by 80,000. This leaves the Government with an even greater target of 180,000 to meet by 2005.

In February the Home Secretary and the Lord Chancellor candidly admitted that "significant" improvements were required if Labour was to honour its 2001 manifesto promise.

By allowing juries to see previous convictions and acquittals, trying people twice for the same offence and letting judges hear cases on their own, Labour hopes to tip the balance in favour of the prosecution. In this way fewer defendants will be acquitted and fewer cases will fail before the prosecution can get a conviction.

The double jeopardy proposals are far wider than those put forward by the Law Commission last year, which said they should only affect murder cases. Yesterday's proposal also includes manslaughter, rape and armed robbery.

By ensuring the middle-classes cannot avoid jury service, cases will be decided by those who fear crime and have a vested interest in convicting on the basis of "better safe than sorry".

The Government also knows that judges sitting alone are much more likely to convict than juries. Yesterday's criminal justice White Paper gives judges the power to try fraud and other complex cases, and to sit alone when there are allegations of jury nobbling. It also permits defendants to opt for a judge-only trial, in the same waythat turkeys might vote for Christmas.

Such a combined assault on the right to trial by jury matches anything contained in the mode of trial Bills that were thrown out by the House of Lords and then quietly dropped by the Government yesterday.

Lord Justice Auld's report on the criminal justice system, finalised last year, gave Labour a welcome opportunity to re-think its strategy on jury trials.

Three months after the Auld report hit ministers' desks, the Government published its criminal justice business plan, which called for a redoubling of efforts on its central pledge to successfully prosecute more offences. "It is vital that the criminal justice system becomes better at resolving crime," the plan said.

"We need to ensure that more crimes are detected and that more crimes are properly resolved with an offender brought to justice."

On Monday, Gordon Brown used his spending review to reaffirm this pledge by allocating £650m to "improve the delivery of justice, with a target of 1.2 million successful criminal prosecutions by 2005-06."

Last night the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, once again returned to the problem of attrition in the criminal courts when he told an audience of judges that, out of 100 crimes, only nine resulted in a conviction or guilty plea.

He said: "Now, of every 100 crimes recorded by the police, only about 24 are successfully detected. Thus, the major component in the attrition rate is the 76 crimes not detected at all. Of the 24, the police take action in 19. Four out of the 19 are either formally discontinued or written off by the CPS.

"Of the remaining 15, five result in a caution, nine result in a guilty plea or a conviction after trial, and just one results in an acquittal. So the great bulk of attrition occurs before cases even enter the court system."

Meanwhile, the National Crime Faculty has calculated that there are about 35 murder cases where defendants who were acquitted could be reinvestigated and new charges brought if the law was changed retrospectively.

Acquitted murder suspects who could stand trial again

Stephen Lawrence suspects Neil Acourt, Gary Dobson, and Luke Knight, were suspected of stabbing to death the black 18-year-old Stephen Lawrence in south London in 1993. They were formally acquitted when a private prosecution for murder failed. Scotland Yard has sent new evidence against the three men plus three others to the Crown Prosecution Service. But legal experts have argued that five of the men could not receive a fair trial because they have been branded "murderers" by at least one national newspaper.

Billy Dunlop The former labourer was found not guilty of murdering Julie Hogg, 22, who was strangled and hidden behind a bath panel at her home in Teesside in 1989. Mr Dunlop, an ex-lover of the dead woman, later boasted that he was the killer. He admitted the murder during a trial for perjury for which he was jailed for six years in April 2000.

Freddie Foreman The former gangland hitman claimed on television in 2000 that he carried out two murders for the Kray twins. Foreman, 70, was acquitted of both murders at the Old Bailey in the 1960s. He told a documentary team that he shot dead Frank Mitchell, known as the Mad Axeman, and helped kill Tommy "Ginger" Marks.