As plans to give volunteers the power to mete out justice in their own community for petty crimes and anti-social behaviour are outlined, one pilot scheme in Somerset has already put power into the hands of local people.
By Margaret Ryan
A woman who was involved in a domestic violence incident in a Somerset pub woke up with more than a hangover the next day.
She ended up going before a panel of local volunteers and signing a contract saying she would change her behaviour after the brawl in which a bottle was smashed over someone's head.
Drunken behaviour can be tackled by panels
She also agreed to work behind the bar for two days to see what it was like to be on the receiving end of drunken behaviour.
This is just one case which has come before the Chard and Ilminster Community Justice Panel in Somerset since it began hearing cases in January year.
Somerset County councillor Jill Shortland has been instrumental in setting up the pilot project, which is being feted as an example of how communities could help tackle petty crime and anti-social behaviour, in a report by the left wing think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research.
Ms Shortland said the woman involved in the pub row had changed her attitude having worked behind the bar.
"The offender said to the landlady 'I never would have believed people behaved in this way. 'I feel ashamed. I am never going to get drunk again.' She is a changed individual."
The new tier of justice below magistrates courts is not a court, the hearings are not held in public and the adult offender does not go away with a criminal record.
But the offender must admit their guilt and victims and offenders are visited by a panel representative before the hearing to consider if it is the best way to deal with the case.
Home Office minister Hazel Blears is lending her support to justice being done locally, launching the think tank report on Tuesday afternoon.
If more widely adopted, the panels would build on the success of youth offender panels and would be overseen by the probation service.
They would be able pass a range of measures, such as sending an offender on community service, but would not impose fines or send people to prison.
Ms Shortland is convinced many offenders regret their behaviour and want to make amends.
"In one case before us the person was in pieces and couldn't believe they had behaved in this way and wanted to apologise."
She cited a case of a rowdy neighbour where a young woman had been making the lives of elderly residents a misery for two years.
The woman agreed not to have visitors after 9pm and to stop them talking on their mobile phones outside her home.
"Within a week people noticed the difference. Some even said it was too quiet and they couldn't sleep," she Ms Shortland.
"We are not mini magistrates courts. We are not judge and jury but we are taking action."
So far the panel has resolved 14 cases and has about another 10 under review.
Everyone who comes before the chairman and two other volunteers must sign a contract to amend their behaviour.
Referrals are checked by the Crown Prosecution Service and police.
If contracts are broken this could be a "fast track to an Asbo" (Anti-Social Behaviour Orders), said Ms Shortland.
Persistent offenders could still face Asbos
Evidence of how successful the panel has been so far is anecdotal but the signs are good.
"Everyone says night-time trouble has reduced. If you look at the statistics crime has not gone down but if you talk to people in Chard they say it has gone down."
"It is about community involvement. It's about seeing how people can change if they are given the chance.
In Chard, the panel was set up after the local magistrates court closed.
It is manned by three volunteers ranging in age from 25 to 82 who have completed a few days training course.
Still in its early days, it has received two thirds of its funding from the Home Office with the rest raised locally.
Val Keitch visits the offenders and victims before the hearings.
Having worked as a probation officer and for the prison service, she is convinced of the panel's merits.
"The fact that it is held within the local community and run by members of the public helps.
"The offender sees the effect their behaviour has had on the victim. You don't always see that if you just get a caution."
John Lacey, one of the pilot's organisers and himself a panel volunteer, agrees.
"Victims can see justice being done. Often all they are looking for is an apology and where there is damage that that is paid for."
At one panel someone who broke a shop window agreed to pay £60 for it to be fixed. Two days afterwards the offender went to the shop, paid the money and apologised.
In another case the offender had got angry at being caught by a roadside speed trap and argued with those who caught him.
After the panel he not only apologised but is now so friendly with the victims he plays bridge with them and is considering getting involved in operating the speed traps himself.
Andrew Buckingham, a spokesman for Victim Support, said some may view getting offenders and victims together as a "soft touch" on crime.
It remains to be seen if a scheme covering a rural area with a population of some 26,000 would work well on an inner city estate.
But Mr Buckingham welcomed the idea in theory.
"If offenders, particularly young offenders, are getting together with victims of crime and facing up to what they have done, and if that reduces crime, then that is fantastic".
As for the panels tackling petty crime or anti-social behaviour, he said: "What may be viewed as low level offences still blights communities and the effect on people's lives shouldn't be underestimated."