Bar to Labour:Keep up the good work

Robert Owen QC welcomes the Government's proposals concerning human rights, youth crime and reform of the CPS, but says that some areas need further consideration. Robert Owen QC is chairman of the Bar Council. First and foremost I am delighted to see that the commitment in the Labour Party manifesto to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law has been put into effect immediately.

A Home Office Bill will be laid before Parliament for the incorporation of the main provisions of the convention. It appears from statements made by the Home Secretary that he will follow the New Zealand model, namely a Bill which does not undermine the sovereignty of Parliament.

Incorporation will not only enable our citizens to rely upon their rights under the convention before domestic courts, it will also make it highly improbable that any future government will place before Parliament provisions such as those relating to intrusive surveillance contained in the recent Police Bill.

Second, there is the question of penal policy. The principal thrust of the Government's proposals is directed at youth crime. The Home Secretary has set out his plans in a paper, Setting the Pace, issued just before the election.

He proposes a radical overhaul of the youth justice system, which is unquestionably not operating as effectively as is should. All will applaud his intention to dramatically speed up the system and to provide fast-track punishment for persistent young offenders.

The current delays between offending and appearing in court are simply not acceptable. They reduce the impact of detection and punishment, and encourage further offending by youngsters on bail who think they have nothing to lose. Alternatively, they result in lengthy remands in custody which are costly and undermine the objective of diverting the offender from further crime.

Setting the Pace contains a number of other positive proposals:

the provision of local authority youth offender teams who will draw up community sentences;

the reform of the chaotic and dysfunctional range of custodial sentences;

the establishment of a National Youth Justice Board to set and monitor standards.

There are two matters of concern, however. First, the abolition of the doli incapax presumption. At present prosecutors must demonstrate that offenders between the ages of 10 and 13 knew that what they were doing was wrong. Do we as a society really want to hold those within this age group fully responsible for their acts without such a safeguard?

Second, the emphasis on saving costs. For example, the proposal that publicly-funded legal representation should only be available in the youth courts where there is a not guilty plea or where, on a guilty plea, there is a likelihood of a custodial sentence. A non-custodial sentence will often have a serious impact on the offender. Also how, when and by whom is a custodial sentence likely to be determined?

Unnecessary expenditure, such as that incurred on repeat adjournments, must be eliminated. But cost-cutting must not become the dominant consideration where issues of justice and the rights of the individual, particularly youth offenders, are concerned.

Third, reform of the CPS. The government's plans are spelt out in the paper The case for the prosecution, published by the Home Secretary and the Attorney General on 18 April.

It contains a telling critique of the current Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) introduced in 1986 against the advice of the 1981 Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure.

The Home Secretary considers that the CPS is "overcentralised, inefficient and wastes the taxpayers' money".

He and the Attorney General propose a locally-based prosecution service with chief crown prosecutors for each police force area. The objective is to provide a more effective prosecuting service and improve conviction rates.

I also welcome the commitment to open and transparent government and in particular to using information technology to enhance people's aspirations for better, more accessible and accountable public services.

I hope that that commitment will extend to making both statute law and, in due course, case law available to all on the Internet. It is surely a function of the government to make its laws available to all its citizens.

Finally, there is the proposed introduction of a statutory right to interest on late payment of debts. I trust that the government will henceforth regard itself as bound by the spirit of the proposed legislation and apply the same principle to payments to solicitors and counsel under the legal aid scheme.