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Last Updated: Friday, 23 June 2006, 15:42 GMT 16:42 UK
Blair's legal balancing act
By Jon Silverman
Legal affairs analyst

So, what does Tony Blair mean by rebalancing criminal justice?

Tony Blair
Tony Blair recently met victims of crime in Bristol

Some of the blueprint for reform was outlined in a low-key consultation paper issued by the lord chancellor in April.

The government believes that the criminal courts - especially magistrates' courts - are clogged up with too many cases which they do not need to hear.

Criminal damage, theft, some public order and anti-social behaviour offences are all crimes, they believe, that can be dealt with administratively.

For that to happen, the offender would have to admit guilt, be willing to pay a fine, compensation or make reparation, and if necessary, accept an order requiring an intervention such as drug treatment.

Such cases could be diverted from court and dealt with by a fixed penalty notice or conditional caution. This is what the prime minister means by summary justice.

The president of the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo), Ken Jones, said this approach needed to be accelerated.

'Community justice'

The other ambition, only partly realised, is to reconnect courts with communities.

Branded as "community justice", this sees the purpose of the court as adopting a "problem-solving" approach to a crime rather than merely handing down a sentence and moving on to the next case.

Though a lawyer himself, Mr Blair does not see profound implications for the even-handedness of justice by promoting administrative solutions to many low-level offences

This goes hand-in-hand with the plethora of measures to tackle anti-social behaviour and has had some success in north Liverpool, where it has been piloted.

The problem-solving approach is also being tried in specialist courts, dealing with drugs and domestic violence.

Criminologist Sir Anthony Bottoms said that, in many cases, it is possible to address the rights of both victims and offenders without setting up a conflict of interest.

But Mr Blair is determined to ride two horses at once - following a long-term offender management strategy, which depends on greater use of community punishment, while promising a tougher sentencing and parole regime, which will necessitate more prison places.

On-the-spot fines

The chairman of the Youth Justice Board, Professor Rod Morgan, pointed out that 70% of the board's budget was spent on custody.

More could be achieved, he said, in identifying potential young offenders and intervening at an early age, if the resources were available to do it.

Though a lawyer himself, Mr Blair does not see profound implications for the even-handedness of justice by promoting administrative solutions to many low-level offences.

Many strongly disagree, with critics pointing to Mr Blair's support for attempts to curb jury trial and liking for on-the-spot fines as evidence of his distrust of due process.

A package of reforms - which may also include an automatic jail sentence for any breach of bail conditions - will be announced by Home Secretary John Reid next month.

They will garner more headlines, certainly, but probably not bring about the rebalancing which the prime minister so craves.

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