Crime Rates and Judicial Blunders Prompt Britain To Ponder Legal Overhaul

PRESSURES are building for basic changes in the twin pillars of Britain's system of justice: the courts and the police.

Sentencing errors by judges have prompted calls for closer supervision of the work of the judiciary, and the country's tradition of trial by jury is being questioned by critics who say guilty persons are wasting the courts' time.

As the number of successful prosecutions fails to keep pace with rising crime, there are demands for a more efficient and effective police force.

Opponents of change are strengthening their defenses in the face of reform advocates' arguments, and a season of brisk and sometimes acrid debate has opened.

In one of the most radical and controversial proposals, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, the head of Britain's legal system, has suggested that lawyers should be allowed to accept cases on a no-win, no-fee basis.

The proposed reform, which is intended to help people of modest means to afford court fees, would mean abandoning the current system whereby clients pay lawyers according to the time they spend preparing and arguing cases. Lawyers who lose cases would be paid nothing - but if they win, they could expect to earn around double the amount they receive now.

Lord Mackay's ideas have been attacked by John Mortimer, a leading lawyer and author of the popular television courtroom drama series "Rumpole of the Bailey." Mr. Mortimer says the no-win, no-fee system would turn British justice into "a lottery."

"It is our great tradition that no barrister can refuse a case," he says. "Lord Mackay's proposal would destroy that tradition."

A report by a royal commission urging Prime Minister John Major to abolish the automatic right of accused persons to choose trial by jury in Crown Court cases has run into even deeper trouble. Crown Courts, which handle more serious crimes, are one step above magistrates' courts.

The commission's suggestion was denounced by Lord Taylor, England's chief justice, as being "contrary to the rights of citizens" under the Magna Carta - the nearest thing Britain has to a bill of rights.

BUT the idea found favor with Barbara Mills, the director of public prosecutions, who dismissed the Magna Carta, signed by King John in 1215, as "irrelevant to modern times." She said limited curtailment of the right to trial by jury would "lead to more efficient administration of justice." Police spokesmen also have supported the commission's suggestion.

The same police spokesmen, however, have attacked proposals to put all police officers on 10-year contracts, renewable only if the officers are performing effectively and are still needed.

Under plans drawn up by Sir Patrick Sheehy, a prominent businessman, 5,000 mid-level police officers would lose jobs.

The government called for the Sheehy report against a background of escalating crime but a fall in the number of successful prosecutions. In London last year arrests were down by 22 percent, the number of people charged fell by 30 percent, and the number who were only cautioned after admitting their offense rose by 9 percent. Sir Patrick says such figures point to a lack of efficiency in Britain's 43 separate police forces.

Pressure on government funds lies behind calls for changes in the courts. In England and Wales, Ms. Mills says, it is common for people appearing before a magistrate's court to exercise their existing right to a jury trial in a Crown Court. "But when their case reaches the Crown Court many accused plead guilty anyway. That is a waste of time and money."

Predictably, a royal commission proposal that judges should regularly assess each other's performance has provoked a dusty response from the judges themselves.

In one high-profile rape case in Wales, a judge ordered the youth responsible to pay for a holiday for the victim instead of sentencing him to prison. The judgment was reversed on appeal. Lord Taylor claims that such errors in lower courts are often picked up in courts of appeal, and that, in any case, the news media keep a sharp eye out for blunders on the bench.

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