Blair: Victims’ rights must take priority

The criminal justice system must place higher priority on the rights of people who keep to the law than on those who break it, Tony Blair has insisted.

In a keynote speech in Bristol this morning, the prime minister said the courts must be overhauled and the justice system reclaimed “for the decent majority”.

It was not about abandoning the rights of suspects to a fair trial or due process, Mr Blair insisted, but about adopting a new determination “to make the protection of people the priority”.

“There is no point saying that in theory there should be no conflict between the rights of the victims and the rights of the offenders – there is in practice such a conflict,” he said.

“Every day we can’t resolve it by rebalancing the system [results in] consequences that are not abstract but out there, very real, on our streets.”

The government has been fighting off weeks of bad headlines about overflowing jails, overly lenient prison sentences and concerns about illegal immigration, and today’s speech was designed to draw a line under these rows.

Speaking the day after talking with victims of crime in Bristol, the prime minister called for a “national debate” about how the criminal justice system could be reformed which required a reassessment of where its priorities should be.

He rejected suggestions that ministers were simply responding to media hysteria in announcing tough new measures – he said politicians “could be populists, and the media can distort, but neither are they the reason why the public is anxious”.

Mr Blair also admitted there were concerns that the increasing use of summary justice to tackle anti-social behaviour and other low level crime, and fears this rebalancing of rights could lead to “rough justice”.

“I understand the is exactly to defend against that that rebalancing has to be done with care and scrutiny. The brute reality is that rough justice works both ways – it is rough injustice when neighbourhoods are terrorised by gangs,” he declared.

Home secretary John Reid is expected to outline a major overhaul of the criminal justice system next month, but today the prime minister outlined the key areas in which he believed reform was most urgent.

Firstly, new laws were needed, Mr Blair insisted. He rejected claims that more than 40 pieces of legislation introduced in this area since 1997 was sufficient, saying: “My view is they have not been tough enough.”

Secondly, the entire court system had to be overhauled to ensure it provided victims with a better service. This included a move towards specialised courts for certain crimes, as was already being tested for domestic violence and drugs.

Thirdly, Mr Blair insisted there should be less emphasis on the offence “and more on the offender”, which meant ensuring people were monitored all the way through the system and helped to “sort their lives out”. Failure to do so could see them return to jail.

“Our lives have changed in so many ways in the modern world for the better, but in one part of modern life people feel that we’ve regressed and that is in the respect we show for each other,” Mr Blair concluded.

He added: “Such is the changing nature of the world that we need to readjust to reclaim the system, and thereby the streets, for the decent majority.This is not the argument of the lynch mob, or of people who are indifferent to convicting the innocent, but it is simply a rational and reasonable answer to the problem.”