Hindu Vivek Kendra
«« Back
It's about time the victims of crime received justice

It's about time the victims of crime received justice

Author: David Blunkett
Publication: The Daily Telegraph, UK
Date: November 12, 2002

Sometimes one small word can tell us more, than a lengthy speech. Among the many thousands of words which will be written about the Criminal Justice Bill, I wonder how many will focus on the fact that we always refer to the criminal justice system rather than the criminal justice service.

The distinction goes to the heart of the discussion surrounding the wide-ranging reforms we are about to put before Parliament. The Government and the public see a set of outdated institutions, procedures and sentences that too often combine to deny justice and leave victims and witnesses frustrated and betrayed. The people whom the courts fail to serve are the ones who need redress the most.

Yet the defenders of the status quo never refer to the rights of victims and witnesses; instead, they deploy tradition and absolute values of liberty as giant roadblocks to change. On their charge sheet, the elected Government is damned as "populist" and accused of attempting to politicise" the legal system by dint of seeking to exercise its democratic mandate to achieve reform. The integrity of the law, with all its age-old flaws and twisted traditions, must not be compromised, they say.

But the case for reform is overwhelming. Only one fifth of crimes reported to the police end with a conviction. But too many crimes go undetected in the first place, and when they are detected, 45 per cent of files in contested cases are not properly compiled. Defendants regularly fail to appear and nearly a quarter of all defendants commit at least one offence while on bail. The Crown Prosecution Service discontinues 13 per cent of all cases because they are not prepared well enough. Our service to victims although improved considerably - is still not good enough and too often leaves them feeling as if they are being forced to suffer all over again. Witnesses - often also victims - can be casually treated as an inconvenience or an Aunt Sally in court. The different parts of the system too often behave as if their institutional independence is a reason not to work in partnership to deliver justice and reduce crime.

We know that we cannot tackle all these problems by focusing on criminal justice alone. That is why we are already reforming the police while delivering record officer numbers, providing for long-term crime prevention in local communities, tackling reoffending through the newly established National Probation Service and investing in a major programme of IT infrastructure.

But we must face up to the outdated practices that combine too often to strip victims of their rights. The language and procedures of the court make many feel uncomfortable and unwelcome - a parallel universe removed from their everyday life and the circumstances of the crime.

Intimidated juries are a good example of how an adherence to tradition fails justice. How does it serve the victims' rights when it becomes impossible to secure a fair trial because the jury is afraid to convict someone it believes to be guilty? I think common sense dictates that in such cases the judge should be allowed to step in and take the case forward alone.

With intimidated juries, as with much else, we hear the cry that jury trial is an ancient, inviolable right. But the right to jury trial dates back to 1855, not to Magna Carta, and 90 per cent of trials are conducted fairly without a jury already. Even so, my critics completely discount the changes to previous proposals, reversing the two major mode-of-trial Bills in the last session of Parliament. I still believe that jury trial is a central principle of British justice, but that should not preclude sensible, rational modifications to deal with modern problems such as serial intimidation and serious fraud, where the system obstructs justice, rather than guaranteeing it.

Nothing in our proposed reforms weakens the central principle of British justice: innocent until proved guilty, a defendant convicted only when evidence makes the case beyond all reasonable doubt. The key question is why should we allow artificial barriers to remain that prevent both the defence and the prosecution from putting all the available facts and arguments before the court?

There must be change. Take previous convictions. Everywhere else in our daily lives - whether in schools or workplaces - we routinely take into account what we know about a person's past behaviour when reaching a balanced judgment about their responsibility for present actions. Only in the courtroom are we deliberately denied all access to this information on a consistent and rational basis, being expected to believe that a man who has committed 10 rapes in the past is equally likely to be innocent of another rape charge as a man who has never committed such a crime. This is untenable.

The same principles apply to double jeopardy. We live in an age of DNA testing, with compelling forensic evidence now able to help solve, crimes from past decades. But it is argued that this is an inviolable principle dating back to medieval times,' when DNA technology was inconceivable. We use DNA - rightly - to free someone wrongly convicted, so why not use it to convict someone wrongly acquitted?

As well as more effective prosecutions, we need closer working between the different institutions, involved; the street-crime initiative showed the benefits of this approach. We also need more effective sentencing; putting on the statute book a range of tough and effective community sentencing to ensure that prison is used only for dangerous, violent sexual or persistent offenders and, that such offenders are dealt with, robustly and consistently.

The reforms we are proposing, address some of the most fundamental issues facing our society today. To say we need a system fit for the 21st, not the 19th, century is not a cliche; it is a hard reality experienced day-in,' day-out by victims and witnesses of crime m every corner of Britain. I welcome a debate on our plans, but, the starting point must be how to, bring more cases to court and ensure the conviction of the guilty, not defending an institutional status quo, on the grounds that any change, however sensible, might make things worse. I simply don't believe: that it is impossible to do a great deal better and I invite those committed to change to join us in this endeavour.

Back                          Top

«« Back
  Search Articles
  Special Annoucements