'Culture of complacency' in criminal justice system

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Indy Politics

The criminal justice system was condemned for its "culture of complacency" tonight.

An official investigation into a horrific murder on-board a London bus by a chip-throwing schizophrenic revealed a "lackadaisical" attitude towards criminals who commit offences on bail.

The report also revealed that only 46 prisons out of 140 in England and Wales have access to the Police National Computer (PNC).

It meant Anthony Joseph was freed from jail - even though there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest - and was free to kill Richard Whelan after the 28-year-old tried to stop him throwing chips at his girlfriend.

The report by criminal justice watchdogs criticised the criminal justice system's "lackadaisical or nonchalant" attitude to many aspects of the case, with these failings combining to culminate in Mr Whelan's death.

It said: "There seems to be too ready an acceptance of the commission of offences while on bail, insufficient rigour in respect of checking the validity of proposed bail conditions, and an apparent acceptance of the continual breach of bail conditions."

Shadow justice secretary Nick Herbert said: "This report is a damning indictment of a culture of complacency towards bail.

"Reform is needed so that bail conditions are properly enforced and defendants know that breaches will result in immediate action.

"It is also a further tragic example of how the Government's IT failures in the criminal justice system have put members of the public at risk."

He added: "Gordon Brown signalled a review of bail in January, but his officials still haven't published a consultation paper.

"While this Government once again dithers, Conservatives have published detailed proposals to tighten the bail laws and put public safety first."

Joseph, also known as Anthony Peart, was sent to Broadmoor secure hospital in December.

He admitted manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility after being formally acquitted of murder when two trials failed to produce verdicts.

The incident on the top deck of a No 43 bus in Holloway, north London, took place just hours after his release from prison in July 2005.

Today's report recommended that ministers should look at giving prisons "enhanced access" to the PNC so they have full information about individual inmates, and whether there are outstanding charges or warrants.

It noted that the same recommendation was made in 2006 by the inquiry into the racist murder of inmate Zahid Mubarek at Feltham young offenders institution.

"The Prison Service has submitted a business case requesting extended access to what is available for viewing," today's report said.

"This is still outstanding with no response to date.

"We recognise that there are considerable resource implications for the National Offender Management Service if the level of PNC checks were to be increased."

Joseph was repeatedly bailed to a non-existent address in Camden, north London, by magistrates in London and Liverpool, where he was arrested for burglary in April 2005.

The inspectors found no evidence that the authorities had checked whether the address was suitable or even genuine.

They detailed a succession of examples where information about Joseph was incomplete or not correctly passed between different agencies.

"We have to conclude that throughout the various court hearings, the approach to the verification of bail conditions to assure the magistrates that they could safely bail the defendant was lacking in rigour," the inspectors' report said.

It recommended new systems should be devised so courts have "sufficient information ... to make an informed decision".

Police should also draw up new guidelines to ensure offenders are made to comply with bail conditions, and that information is shared between forces, the report went on.

Joseph, 23, had nine convictions between 2001 and the year of the manslaughter.

None was for violent crimes although there was one for possessing an offensive weapon.

The report said: "We have found nothing to suggest that the criminal justice agencies should have been aware that the defendant was likely to commit an offence of extreme violence or that he was suffering from an extreme mental illness."

"However, what we have found is what may best be described as a lackadaisical or nonchalant approach within the criminal justice system to many routine aspects of the handling of cases, the cumulative effect of which was to lead to the sequence of events which culminated on July 29, 2005.

"The lack of diligence in verifying suggested bail conditions, scant evidence of enforcement of those conditions and a failure to deal effectively with breaches when they occurred, all contributed to events taking the course they did.

"This was compounded by a lack of communication between the agencies in the various parts of the country."

Solicitor General Vera Baird said a new working group had been set up to examine the recommendations.

"The Government very much regrets the death of Richard Whelan and thanks the chief inspectors for their work, and we are determined to learn lessons from this," she said.

Sandra Sullivan, a founder member of charity Victims' Voice, whose daughter was killed by a schizophrenic woman, said: "I would like a panel set up to look into recommendations from reports like this, and make sure they are implemented.

"I hate it when people say 'Lessons will be learned'.

"The criminal justice system is indifferent, and they carry on doing their jobs without regard for the future.

"This kind of criminal behaviour is repetitive and predictable.

"I want to see accountability when things go wrong."

HM Inspectors of the Crown Prosecution Service, Constabulary, Court Administration and Prisons carried out the report at the request of three government ministers.