TONY BLAIR risked a fresh clash with the legal establishment yesterday when he targeted a ?distant? justice system that most believed let people get away with breaking the rules.
In his latest assault on the criminal justice system and human rights laws, the Prime Minister rounded on those who failed properly to supervise drug offenders and criminals who have been given community punishment.
Mr Blair reiterated his oft- repeated call for a shake-up of the criminal justice system to ensure that the security of the law-abiding is put ahead of the rights of offenders.
The Prime Minister said it was time for a ?profound rebalancing? of the debate on civil liberties to ensure that wrongdoers pay the penalty for breaking the rules.
He was speaking after a string of high-profile cases in which prisoners released early from jail have committed murders while on licence, as well as a High Court ruling ? condemned as ?inexplicable? by John Reid, the Home Secretary ? that nine Afghan hijackers should be allowed to stay in Britain.
His comments were dismissed by opponents as an attempt to ?relaunch? the party after bruising weeks of negative headlines, internal feuding and poor election results. Lawyers also attacked the Prime Minister and said his criticism of human rights laws was a ?smokescreen? to hide the Government?s failure to deliver on law and order.
The Prime Minister, speaking at the start of a Labour consultative initiative, said that the criminal justice system was the public service ?most distant? from what reasonable people expected.
?I think what people want is a society without prejudice but with rules ? rules that are fair, rules that we all play by and rules that if they are broken carry a penalty,? he said.
?The truth is most people believe that we don?t live in such a society today.?
Mr Blair signalled that, despite identifying the problems four years ago and more than 40 law and order Bills since Labour came to power, he now thinks that far-reaching reform is needed to tackle the problem. ?The criminal justice system is the public service most distant from what reasonable people want. I believe we need a profound rebalancing of the civil liberties debate.?
Mr Blair added: ?We should not have to fight continual legal battles to deport people committing serious crimes or inciting extremism.
?We cannot allow violent or drug-abusing offenders to be put back out on the street again without proper supervision and, if necessary, restraint. We cannot have bail requirements, probation orders or community sentences flouted without proper penalty? In fact, drug-abusing offenders are given treatment and supervision, while offenders given community sentences are expected to be monitored by the Probation Service to ensure that they keep to the terms of the order.
Senior legal figures reacted with fury or incredulity last night to the Prime Minister?s assault on the human rights laws that are a flagship statute of his own Government.
Mr Blair and Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the Lord Chancellor, are considering amending the Human Rights Act to ensure that public safety takes primacy over human rights.
Lawyers said that amendments would be difficult, if not impossible, and would make no difference to the way judges reached their decisions. The real problem, they said, was that officials were not doing their job properly and not applying proper procedures: the attack on the Act was a ?smokescreen? that hid the failure of ministers to deliver.
Stephen Hockman, QC, chairman of the Bar, said: ?It is neither possible nor desirable to amend the Human Rights Act.
?We have been signed up to the European Convention for 50 years and you cannot opt in and out of different bits at will.?
Lord Lester of Herne Hill, a human rights barrister and Liberal Democrat peer, said: ?This is just to appease the tabloids and take people?s eyes off the ball.?
THE HUMAN RIGHTS ACT AND ITS IMPLICATIONS
WHY WAS THE HUMAN RIGHTS ACT 1998 INTRODUCED AND WHAT DID IT DO?
Labour brought in the Act as a key constitutional reform. It was not new law but enshrined the existing European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law.
That meant British judges could apply human rights principles directly in the courts; and that people do not have to go to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to have their human rights? complaints decided by foreign judges
WHAT HAS THE IMPACT BEEN?
A ?human rights? culture now permeates every level of officialdom, with public bodies required to consider the human rights? implications of every decision they make.
WHY SHOULD THIS WORRY TONY BLAIR?
Tony Blair is concerned that the criminal justice system is slanted in favour of criminals rather than victims of crime.
Recent rulings, particularly in terrorism cases, appear to favour the defendants. So he says that lawyers are using human rights arguments to deflect the courts from making rulings that ?should? be made in the interests of protecting the public.
Ministers are also concerned that officials are being over-zealous and slavishly adhering to human rights? principles, forgetting that few rights are absolute, and must be balanced by the competing rights of others
IS THIS CORRECT?
The Chief Inspector of Probation last week, when reporting on the case of Anthony Rice, who had been released to kill, said that the Parole Board had been diverted by human rights? considerations and that more attention was paid to Rice?s human rights than public safety factors.
They tended to approach decisions about releasing lifers as ?when?, not ?if?. The process had become complicated by human rights? rulings so that prisoners are represented at parole board hearings by lawyers and had recourse to judicial review
SO, IS IT ALL DOWN TO JUDGES AND LAWYERS?
There are now human rights sets of chambers, and lawyers argue human rights? points that they may not have argued before ? critics say that it is a ?growth industry?. But lawyers and judges insist that they are just applying the law. When the Government is over-ruled, it is often because officials have failed to follow procedures, or a measure ? such as locking up terror suspects without charge ? is held to be a breach of human rights. But judges apply existing common law, such as in the Belmarsh case, where suspects were held without charge
HAS THE ACT MADE JUDGES ALL-POWERFUL?
No. Parliament holds the trump card. Judges cannot overturn a law, just rule that it is incompatible with human rights. Parliament is expected (but not obliged) to take steps to change the measure and ensure that it is human rights? compliant
WHY IS TONY BLAIR PARTICULARLY CONCERNED ABOUT THE IMPACT OF HUMAN RIGHTS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE?
Because of a series of rulings adverse to the Government in its efforts to tackle the threat of terrorism: the Belmarsh case that suspects cannot be held without trial; the law lords? ruling in December saying that evidence obtained by torture is inadmissible; and the ruling on the Afghan hijackers
IS ALL THIS DOWN TO THE ACT?
No. Judges were making rulings that infuriated ministers before the Act came into force and are likely to continue to do so