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Wednesday, 13 November, 2002, 14:58 GMT
Rocky reception for justice plans
Plans to shake up the UK's courts system have been branded an "affront to justice" by civil liberties campaigners.

The government's plans to "rebalance" the criminal justice system in favour of victims sets up a clash too with the legal profession and could prompt Labour rebellions.

Justice plans
Tougher sentencing policy
Anti-social behaviour crackdown
Update of sex offences laws
Ending double jeopardy
Allowing juries to hear previous convictions
Letting judges sit without a jury in complex cases
The proposals include allowing a jury to hear about defendants' previous convictions and also allowing people to be tried twice for the same serious crime if new, compelling evidence appears.

Such changes, outlined in the Queen's Speech, received support from frontline police officers but opposition parties warned the changes would do little to combat crime.

Conservative chairman Theresa May said it was right to put more focus on crime victims.

But she argued: "Today's bills offer no long-term, coherent strategy to the problem of crime.

"We've heard it all before - this government's approach to tackling crime remains short term and based on gimmicks."

'Unusual coalitions'

The Tories are stressing that there have been 12 criminal justice bills during Labour's five years in power.

Liberal Democrat spokesman Matthew Taylor also said there was a sense of deja vu and criticised the government's approach.

"It does not help the victims to create more victims of inadequacies in the criminal justice system itself," Mr Taylor told BBC Radio 4's World At One.

David Blunkett, Home Secretary
Blunkett could face new coalitions
"To send more innocent people to jail is certainly not helping the victim."

Mr Taylor said some of the plans would not on unite Lib Dems and Tories in opposition, but would see human rights groups siding with some of the most conservative lawyers.

It was the changes to court practice, which include allowing hearsay evidence, which most worried civil rights group Liberty.

'Tackling the wrong issue'

Liberty's Mark Littlewood said: "The proposals contained in the Queen's Speech are an affront to justice...

"Blaming fair trial protections for crime rates is wrong and misleads the public."

Mr Littlewood said less than 10% of people brought up before courts were acquitted.

Barristers' groups say the plans are a "dark day" for justice
"The problem is that in over three-quarters of all crimes - over 4m a year - no-one is arrested."

Allowing hearsay evidence and defendants' previous convictions to go before juries would result in many innocent people being convicted, predicted Mr Littlewood.

Removing "double jeopardy", which prevents people from being tried twice for the same crime, would mean the ordeal would not be over from defendants acquitted by a jury, he said.

"Police and prosecutors, knowing they can have a 'second bash', won't have to tackle real problems of incompetent investigation in the first place," added Mr Littlewood.

'Trust juries'

Such concerns were echoed by the Bar Council's Matthias Kelly.

"This is a dark day for the justice system," said leading barrister Mr Kelly.

"Ministers now face a battle royal in Parliament over these proposals.

"The government is returning yet again to try to erode the right to trial by jury, when it has already been defeated time and time again on the issue.

"People trust juries, and want a justice system which features juries wherever possible."

But there was a more positive response from David Bradnock, a magistrate in Birmingham.

Mr Bradnock was particularly impressed by plans to give witnesses and victims more support.

'Pendulum swing'

The plans received backing too from the Police Federation, which represents 128,000 frontline officers in England and Wales.

Rod Dalley, the federation's vice-chairman, said: "At present, the pendulum has swung too far in favour of defendants, with the odds heavily stacked against victims."

Mr Dalley particularly welcomed plans to change the double jeopardy law and allow previous convictions to be heard.

"Too great an emphasis has been based on the legal technicalities of evidence, rather than relevance," said Mr Dalley.

The BBC's Mark Mardell
"A lot of Labour MPs might regard the crime package as illiberal"
The BBC's Richard Bilton
"People say anti-social behaviour wears them down"

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13 Nov 02 | Politics
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