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Tuesday, 18 June, 2002, 20:05 GMT 21:05 UK
Courts shake-up promised by Blair
Mr Blair said court system needs modernising
Prime Minister Tony Blair has promised to shift the balance in favour of crime victims in what he said would be the biggest shake-up in the justice system for decades.

The courts system in England and Wales needed to be dragged from the 19th century into the 21st century to restore the faith of law-abiding people, he said.

The time has come to drag it out from the 19th century into the 21st

Tony Blair
Mr Blair used a speech in London to signal some of the "controversial" changes to be included when ministers unveil new plans next month.

The prime minister is trying to grab back the initiative on crime amid reports that figures out next month are expected to show recorded crime is again on the rise.

Restoring confidence

Among the changes he hinted would feature in the upcoming white paper was the scrapping of the so-called "double jeopardy rule", which prevents people from being tried again for an offence once they have been acquitted of it.

Defendants acquitted of serious offences should go back to court if significant new evidence was unearthed, he said.

"If we want to give the public confidence that when they report a crime to the police an offender will be brought to account, we need to improve the effectiveness of our courts system," said Mr Blair.

Lord Falconer
Lord Falconer says a culture change is needed
He was scathing about the present system, saying it had "no overall lines of control and no overall lines of management or accountability".

Much of the IT systems now in place were still in the "dark ages", he said.

The rules over evidence had to be streamlined and more trust put in the common sense of judges and juries.

The speech comes after Home Office Minister Lord Falconer said on a "culture change" was needed among lawyers in England and Wales to stop them delaying criminal cases.

Sentencing changes

The new white paper will be based on the reform recommendations of Lord Justice Auld.

Mr Blair did not announce the detailed plans but promised major change.

Many protections would remain in place to ensure defendants got a fair trial, he said.

But perhaps the biggest miscarriage of justice came when the guilty walked away unpunished, he argued.

Barristers face working under new rules

Police officers are welcoming the speech but John Wadham, director of civil rights group Liberty, argued the many erosions of suspects rights in the last 20 years had failed to reduce crime.

"Tony Blair's tough talk is misdirected," said Mr Wadham. "Some of his plans are far more likely to threaten fair trials than to actually affect the crime rate."

Mr Blair also said sentencing would be overhauled to do all possible to prevent reoffending.

That meant better supervision of offenders when they left prison and more investment in education schemes.

Harry Fletcher, general secretary of probation union Napo, welcomed moves to make the justice system more effective.

"But the whole package will not work unless the police, probation, Crown Prosecution Service and Prison Service are properly resourced to do the job," he warned.

Jury trial

Conservative shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin agreed the system needed change but said any reforms needed to "stand the test of time".

Ahead of the white paper, ministers are understood to have backed down on plans to restrict the right to trial by jury by setting up a new tier of courts.

But in their new plans, they are tipped to give magistrates more sentencing powers, meaning fewer cases will actually go before juries in crown courts.

Other changes expected are:

  • Allowing previous convictions to be disclosed to juries
  • Complex fraud trials may no longer go before juries
  • New moves to stop people evading jury service
  • Formal system of plea bargaining
  • Allowing prosecutors to appeal against judges halting trials on technicalities

The BBC's Daniel Sandford
"He'll throw out safeguards that have taken years to develop"
Find out more about criminal justice reforms proposed for England and Wales

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