In the Media

Change may tip balance in favour of majority that abide by law

PUBLISHED August 29, 2006

THE Government is planning a new drive to tackle public suspicion that the criminal justice system is more concerned with the rights of criminals than with the law-abiding majority.

Tony Blair and John Reid, the Home Secretary, are preparing a series of measures to rebalance the system to give victims a greater voice in the courts and in parole decisions.

The Prime Minister also expressed his frustration that law and court processes, plus the culture of the legal and political establishments, had failed to adapt to the huge rise in crime in the past century.

Among the measures under consideration are making violent offenders meet the medical expenses of their victims, making it easier for victims to sue in the civil courts, and curbing the discharge of defendants on technicalities.

In spite of almost ten years in power and countless criminal justice measures, Mr Blair admitted last month that the imbalance between lawbreakers and the law abiding remains.

He said: ?There is, above all, a worrying gap between what the decent majority expect of a criminal justice system and what they see it delivering. The public believe that the system shows more concern for protecting the rights of those who break or ignore the law than those who keep it.?

The Prime Minister and Home Secretary defended protections given to suspects, but Mr Reid said that, at times, they now seemed to ?overshadow the rights of the victims and public at large?.

Mr Reid said in July, when he outlined proposals to overhaul the criminal justice system, that it was time to look at ?whether the rights of the accused and those of the victim and the community are correctly balanced?.

He said: ?Rebalancing means our courts should not be remote and inaccessible to the public. There is a perception that the criminal justice system is out of touch with the realities of modern life and that it is distant from the communities who are most likely to be victims of crime.?

His proposals included 8,000 extra prison places by 2012, a four-year maximum jail term for carrying a knife and the ending of automatically reduced sentences for guilty pleas. Some of the proposals were inspired by failings disclosed in inquiries into the killings of the City financier, John Monckton, and of Naomi Bryant by criminals on parole.

Mr Reid wants recruits to the Parole Board to have direct or indirect experience as a victim of crime. A Home Office official will act as a voice for victims at hearings where any person jailed for a serious sexual or violent assault is being considered for release.

At present the offender is often represented at the Parole Board hearing by a lawyer but the State is represented only by a prison governor who often does not challenge assertions made on behalf of the offender.

Mr Reid wants violent offenders to pay towards the medical costs of their victims in the same way that a driver who has caused an accident pays towards the cost of any injuries.

A commissioner for victims and witnesses will be appointed to act as a champion in public, government and legal debate. The Government is also piloting victims? advocates in murder cases in five areas of England and Wales. Relatives of victims are allowed to address the court ? after the verdict but before sentencing ? about the impact of the crime on the family.

The scheme, piloted at the Old Bailey and at crown courts in Cardiff, Birmingham, Winchester and Manchester, met strong opposition from the judiciary, which argued that it would raise relatives? expectations of being able to influence sentences and would turn courts into an emotional arena.

Labour claims to have a long-term strategy of putting victims and witnesses at the heart of the criminal justice process.

The Crown Prosecution Service and police run jointly 165 witness care units which provide advice and support from the moment a suspect is charged to the end of the trial.

Separate waiting rooms for defendants and witnesses will be in place in 90 per cent of magistrates? courts by 2008 while 90 per cent of crown court centres have television links to tackle attempts by suspects to intimidate witnesses.