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Last Updated: Saturday, 22 October 2005, 23:24 GMT 00:24 UK
New community courts proposed
A council worker cleans off graffiti
The panels would deal with low level crime like graffiti
Plans to give panels of community volunteers the power to deal with minor crimes are to be outlined by Home Office minister Hazel Blears next week.

The Community Justice Panels would form a new tier of local courts below magistrates and mete out justice for petty crimes and anti-social behaviour.

It is hoped the panels will seem less remote than the existing courts system.

The ideas emerged in a report from leading left-wing think-tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research.

The think-tank's New Directions in Community Justice will be launched by Ms Blears on Tuesday.

Research shows that local, visible institutions that engage the public are more trusted than remote and anonymous ones
IPPR associate director Ben Rogers

Staffed by three local community volunteers and overseen by the probation service, the panels would be able to pass a range of sentences such as sending an offender on community service or a drug user on a course of treatment.

The report's author IPPR associate director Ben Rogers said crime and anti-social behaviour remained a central concern to people.

"Yet the criminal justice system is too often perceived as remote and unresponsive.

"Research shows that local, visible institutions that engage the public are more trusted than remote and anonymous ones."

The panels could be an effective way of bringing the criminal justice system closer to the community, he added.

Police backing

It follows a trial scheme set up in Somerset last year after a local magistrate court closed.

The Chard and Ilminster Community Justice Panel has passed sentences for drink driving, speeding, neighbour disputes and vandalism.

It won widespread backing from police, the local authority and local people alike.

Like lay magistrates, panel members would have three days of training. It is expected they could handle between six and 20 cases a year.




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