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UK Justice System Weighted In Favour Of Criminals, Say MPs


Aug 17, 2010
World citizen!
Justice system weighted in favour of criminals, say MPs

Government claims that victims are at the heart of the justice system are misleading as it is actually weighted in favour of criminals, a damning report by MPs has warned.

By Tom Whitehead, Home Affairs Editor

The idea that prosecutors act as "champions" for victims of crime misrepresented reality, the Commons Justice Committee said. Ministers who tell victims that the system is being "re-balanced" in their favour were likely to leave them disappointed, they concluded after an inquiry into the working of the Criminal Prosecution Service (CPS).

Instead, offenders were being charged with lower offences by prosecutors keen to boost conviction rates. Violent offenders, muggers, burglars and sex offenders were escaping prison because the CPS wanted to guarantee a guilty verdict, according to magistrates, police and barristers who gave evidence to MPs.

The report attacked the growth in out-of-court penalties as a "fundamental change" to criminal justice. This compared with innocent members of the public given harsh fines for overfilling wheelie-bins or driving in bus lanes, a watchdog pointed out.

The report comes 10 months after Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, admitted the Government has too often concentrated on the needs of offenders, rather than victims. The report concluded: "The prosecutor is not able to be an advocate for the victim in the way that the defence counsel is for the defendant, yet government proclamations that the prosecutor is the champion of victims' rights may falsely give this impression.

"Telling a victim that their views are central to the criminal justice system, or that the prosecutor is their champion, is a damaging misrepresentation of reality. "Expectations have been raised that will inevitably be disappointed."

The report also quotes comments made by Sir Ken Macdonald QC in his final speech as the Director of Public Prosecutions last year, when he warned "it will never be possible, in adversarial proceedings governed appropriately [by the right to a fair trial] for the interests of victims to overcome those of defendants".

Barristers, police and magistrates all told the committee of concerns that crown prosecutors deliberately bring lesser charges, or no charge at all, to offenders to ensure an easier "less risky" conviction in a target-driven culture.

It includes violent offenders being charged with common assault instead of actual bodily harm, muggers being charged with theft from the person instead of robbery or burglars and sex offenders being given cautions rather than facing court and possible jail.

John Thornhill, chairman of the Magistrates' Association, quoted one example when a man was kicked and punched by three men, an offence caught on CCTV, but the culprits were charged with threatening behaviour.

He told The Daily Telegraph the concern was whether such moves were "fair on the victim". Sir Alan Beith, chairman of the committee, added: "Victims often feel like powerless bystanders in the criminal justice system. The Government propagates this idea that the CPS is the victims' champion, but it isn't."

Police officers told the committee some prosecutors were "risk averse" so they could hit conviction targets, while the Magistrates' Association raised the prospect of "plea bargaining by the back door". John Coppen, from the Police Federation, said officers believe the CPS are "reluctant to put before the a court anything other than cast iron cases so better to meet their performance targets".

Peter Lodder QC, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, added: "We suspect that there has been some under charging. We have reason to suppose that there is a tendency to accept inappropriate pleas."

Stephen Wooler, the Chief Inspector of the CPS, raised concerns over the growth of cases which don't reach court, such as cautions and on-the-spot fines. He warned that in some parts of the country, people who overfill wheelie bins or drive in bus lanes are fined more than those guilty of shoplifting or criminal damage. Residents who overfill their wheelie bins face fines of up to £110, while those driving in bus lanes can face fines of up to £120. Shoplifters face just £80 fines.

He called for a "form of scrutiny" over the ways the powers are being used amid concerns they are "less subject to judicial process".
"I am not satisfied that the present level of checks and balances is sufficient to retain public confidence," he said.

MPs were told that no further action is taken in a fifth of occasions where offenders breach conditional cautions. Figures earlier this year showed less than half of suspects in cases considered solved by the police are actually charged or summonsed, with the rest not reaching court.

A record 207,500 on-the-spot fines were issued last year.
The report concluded: "The growth in the number of out-of-court disposals represents a fundamental change to our concept of a criminal justice system and raises a number of concerns about consistency and transparency in the application of punishment."

Keir Starmer, the current DPP, said there was "no evidence of over or under charging". He added: "Fair, fearless and effective; open, honest and transparent; protective, supportive and independent: these are the qualities that the public has a right to expect of its public prosecution service. We are determined to meet those expectations."

A spokesman for Baroness Scotland, the Attorney General, added: "The Attorney continues to support the commitment to victims in the Prosecutor's Pledge and the other initiatives the CPS has put in place to support and secure fair treatment for victims and witnesses, including those who suffer from hate crimes.

"The CPS has made it clear that its role is to enable, encourage and support the effective participation of both victims and witnesses at all stages of the criminal justice process."


This issue has recently debated again. I read this in the newspaper and when looking for an online version to post here, I found it fascinating to see that this very same issue has been discussed in several other countries including India and Canada. What are your thoughts?



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