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Saturday, 13 July, 2002, 15:22 GMT 16:22 UK
British justice: Ready for reform?

Most people hardly ever come into direct contact with the criminal justice system.

There is free access to most courts in England and Wales, but sitting in the public gallery and observing the dispensing of justice is not an especially popular pastime.

However when people do find themselves involved in a court case - as a victim or as a witness - many get quite a shock.

It's not just because of the innate dullness of much of the proceedings, but because they are often appalled at the way they are treated.


Fewer than half the cases brought before magistrates actually proceeded to a verdict

Cases are cancelled or postponed at short notice. Vital evidence is not ready, leading to more delays and confusion.

They often feel isolated, ignored and even intimidated by a complex and archaic system that sometimes seems mainly designed for the benefit of lawyers.

And more seriously, many are left upset and bewildered by hostile and aggressive questioning.

Forty per cent of witnesses in a recent study said their experience in court had been so unpleasant that they were not prepared to go back again.

Twelve good men

This is why the prime minister says he wants to drag the courts from the 19th to the 21st century.

He is determined to restore public confidence in the way the courts operate and challenge widespread concern that too many guilty people walk free.

There is also a feeling in government that too many wily defence lawyers are playing the system and trying to get acquittals by employing tactics of delay and disruption.

Judge's wig
Judges could sit alone in complex trials
Another survey last year showed that fewer than half the cases brought before magistrates actually proceeded to a verdict.

Central to the government's plans is to limit trial by jury.

To be judged by "twelve good men and true" is regarded as a cornerstone of our justice system.

But jury trials are expensive and they are less likely to lead to a conviction than a hearing before a magistrate or a district judge sitting alone.

Last year in a major review of the criminal justice system, a distinguished judge - Sir Robin Auld - recommended a new tier of courts for middle-ranking cases to be heard by a professional judge sitting with two lay magistrates but, crucially, no jury.

Integrity

Sir Robin's findings were probably a step too far for a government that knew it was going to face stiff opposition from the legal professions.

But allowing judges to sit alone in complex trials or where intimidation is likely and increasing the sentencing powers of magistrates so that fewer cases get to crown court will not go unchallenged either.

Critics say the one element in the whole system that the public does trust is the independence and integrity of juries.

So why mess with it? The result, they claim, can only be more miscarriages of justice.

Find out more about criminal justice reforms proposed for England and Wales

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13 Jul 02 | Politics
16 Apr 02 | Politics
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