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Wednesday, 20 March, 2002, 12:07 GMT
Q&A: Anti-social behaviour orders

The decision not to jail a pair of teenage brothers linked to almost 100 crimes each has put anti-social behaviour orders back in the news.

Magistrates decided against imprisoning the duo and instead extended the orders - known as 'Asbos' - they had breached.

What are anti-social behaviour orders?

Asbos are designed to prevent behaviour including theft, intimidation, drunkenness and violence by individuals and families who make life difficult for their communities.

The orders often include restrictions on entering a geographical area or shop but can include bans on specific acts, such as swearing in public.

Juveniles - usually protected by law from being named - can be identified to ensure the community involved know about the Asbo imposed.

The orders are civil, not criminal, sanctions - although breaches are punishable by up to five years in prison - and are handled by police and local authorities working in partnership.

Except in exceptional circumstances, Asbos are not supposed to deal with disputes between neighbours.

Why were Asbos introduced?

Asbos were a key part of the Crime and Disorder Act (1998), itself a central plank of Labour's law and order policy. The orders are aimed at tackling serious, persistent but relatively low-level disorder that can blight communities. They came into force on 1 April 1999.

Who imposes the orders?

If an allegation of persistent anti-social behaviour is made to the police or comes to the attention of the council, the partnership will encourage witnesses to make a statement in order to build up evidence.

An application is then made by a local authority official to a magistrates' court, which hears all cases including those where the defendant is under 18.

What issues does the court consider?

Alongside details of the defendant and the alleged incidents, the magistrates will hear about welfare issues, family circumstances, attempts at mediation and warnings and evidence that the defendant has not been victimised or discriminated against.

How long does an Asbo last?

The minimum is two years and there is no maximum period, although indefinite Asbos must have arrangements for review.

Can Asbos be appealed against?

Yes, by application to a crown court

How have the orders worked in practice?

The government is proposing changes to Asbos because although a flagship initiative they have taken flak from many sides.

Few of the orders have been introduced - less that 500 in three years, mostly targeted at youngsters - and there are reports they are bureaucratic and time-consuming to impose.

Civil liberties campaigners are concerned about Asbos, with John Wadham of Liberty saying they have become a mini-justice system of their own.

But the orders have also been criticised for having no teeth - Norman Brennan, of the Victims of Crime Trust, says uncontrollable youngsters should be put in young offenders' institutions.

Street-walking prostitutes have complained after they started being targeted by Asbos with the aim of keeping them out of certain areas.

What is the government planning to do?

If changes currently going through parliament become law, Asbos will become a tool in criminal cases, so people convicted of crime and disorder offences can be subject to an order on top of their sentence.

Further reforms being introduced in the Police Reform Bill include:

  • Interim Asbos, which mean immediate action can be taken at the first court appearance;

  • Allowing the orders to cover a wider geographical area - including the whole of England and Wales if necessary - to tackle the problem of people moving and resuming their anti-social behaviour;

  • Extending the scope of the orders by allowing registered social landlords and the British Transport Police to apply;

  • Allowing county courts to make orders, for example where the court is dealing with applications for evictions on the basis of anti-social behaviour.

Home Office minister John Denham, speaking in the Commons recently, said the reforms "constitute a very strong package of measures to increase the effectiveness and scope of Asbos and to ensure that they have maximum impact for maximum benefit to communities".

See also:

20 Mar 02 | England
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05 Dec 01 | England
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