Law reformers fight court 'moats' plan

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(First Edition)

A CAMPAIGN against government proposals to build heavily fortified courtrooms, with a 'moat' between the judge and the defendant, will be launched today by a leading penal reform group.

In a letter today to the Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay, the Howard League for Penal Reform accuses the Government of needlessly concentrating on security rather than justice.

Plans to tighten security measures will tip 'the balance of justice against defendants by placing them in a physically degrading and overtly imprisoned position in the courtroom', the group says. The new design, proposed by a government working party, features a strengthened dock and a moat to prevent dangerous defendants from escaping or intimidating judges, juries, witnesses and court staff.

But in the letter, Frances Crook, the league's director, says: 'The proportion of defendants where there is any liklihood of violent outburst is minimal. In the past 10 years only seven violent incidents in Crown courts have been recorded, five of which were on court staff.' Only one or two courts in England and Wales should include special security features, the league says.

By scrapping plans for 'excessive and unnecessary' measures, the Government could make savings that should then be channelled into improved facilities for staff, witnesses and defendants, the letter says.

Ms Crook said: 'Government proposals for Crown courts will only exacerbate the current inequalities in the courtroom. (They) will be costly for the taxpayer, but more importantly, they will be costly for the civil and legal rights of the defendant and the quality of justice administered in our courts.'

The group argues that docks should be abolished altogether, saying that they stigmatize the accused and are 'contrary to the principle that he or she should be treated as innocent until proved guilty'. Docks also prevent defendants from communicating easily with their lawyers, it says.