Rumpole challenges the Asbo in an attack on Labour's criminal record

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Horace Rumpole, Britain's most famous fictional barrister, is to confront the injustice of the Asbo in a stinging literary attack on Labour's record on law and order.

Rumpole's creator, Sir John Mortimer, says he wants to call Tony Blair to account for using draconian measures to tackle juvenile delinquency.

"I'm going to call the book The Antisocial Behaviour of Horace Rumpole," says Sir John. "What matters to Rumpole and to me is that this government has brought in a law which means that children can be sent to prison for something that isn't a criminal offence and without having a trial. It doesn't matter how much ministers say Asbos are working, the fact is they don't represent justice."

In the book, Rumpole defends a 12-year-old boy who has been made the subject of an Asbo and is going to be sent to prison. "Of course, the boy is very proud of his Asbo, it's like a badge of honour," said Sir John.

And Rumpole finds out from personal experience what it is like to be on the wrong end of an Asbo when his smoking and drinking habits land him in trouble of his own with chambers.

"They are trying to remove him from chambers. It's a bit of a political-correctness crackdown. Rumpole's head of chambers, Soapy Sam Ballard, sees his chance by imposing a kind of Asbo on Rumpole," he said.

"I don't want to spoil the plot for everyone but there is a murder as well and it all ties up at the end."

This month, a report by the National Audit Office (NAO) found that antisocial behaviour orders had become less effective, with a hard core of persistent offenders blighting communities across Britain.

According to the NAO report, more than 55 per cent of those given an Asbo did not comply with its conditions, and a hard core of 20 per cent breached them more than five times. One youngster breached his Asbo 25 times. The study confirmed it was the young and those living in the poorest areas who were most likely to suffer, and estimated that antisocial behaviour costs Britain £3.4bn a year.

But the NAO said the Government's Respect drive, which includes appointing 373 local co-ordinators, has reduced the proportion of the population who regard antisocial behaviour as a "big" or "fairly big" problem in their neighbourhood from 21 per cent in 2003-04, to 17 per cent in 2005-06.

Sir John, 83, has long been an outspoken critic of limits to freedom of expression, and his victory defending the publishers of Oz magazine on charges of obscenity was itself turned into the drama in 1991, with Simon Callow cast as the barrister. n Forty deprived areas blighted by antisocial behaviour are to be turned into "respect zones". Councils with high levels of vandalism, hooliganism and truancy will be given extra cash in return for a promise to use their full powers against rowdiness, including Asbos.

Louise Casey, the Government's "respect tsar", said: "We approached these local authorities and asked if they wanted to become 'respect' areas and now they have signed up for it. They now have to convince us that they will do it."