Community Groups Have Say In Court

A scheme allowing community groups to tell courts about the impact of crime in their areas is to be announced today as part of the government’s drive to give the victims of crime a greater say in the judicial process.

Under the proposals, to be piloted in south London, residents’ groups and parish councils will also be given powers to request the jobs they want offenders with non-custodial sentences to carry out.

The move, to be announced by Harriet Harman, the constitutional affairs minister, is intended to bolster public confidence in the criminal justice system.

Until now courts could only hear from individual victims when assessing the impact of a crime under so-called victim impact statements.

But the government believes wider community impact statements will provide a fuller picture of how a crime has affected all those who live and work in an area.

Ms Harman said: “We will be trying out how community groups like the parish council or tenants’ and residents’ associations will be able to tell the court about how crimes affect the local community.”

She said there would also be an extension of the “community payback” scheme to highlight the unpaid work carried out by offenders and to give local people the chance to decide what projects are chosen.

The victim impact statements were introduced in April following complaints by the relatives of victims that they were often sidelined during trials and, on some occasions, that victims were falsely portrayed.

Pilot schemes were set up at the Old Bailey and at Birmingham, Manchester, Cardiff and Winchester crown courts.

The government insists that allowing victim’s relatives to express their feelings in court is not meant to influence the sentence of the judge.

But critics say the system favours the articulate, the educated and the attractive, who are able to put up a more convincing performance than those with fewer advantages. They argue it also penalises those victims whose lives can not be portrayed as blameless.

The scheme will be piloted at Camberwell Green magistrates court, south London, which will advertise for local groups to suggest projects for community sentences.

The subsequent work will be recorded on a plaque to alert residents to the improvement in their area.

Ministers argue that community sentences play an important role in reducing reoffending and enable offenders to “repay” the local community, but are aware the public often regards them as a soft option.

Ms Harman said: “We want the public to have confidence in the greater use of non-custodial sentences.

“That means that when the court orders a fine it must be paid, when it orders compensation to the victim that must be paid, and when it orders an offender to do work they must do it and the community must be able to see that the work has been carried out.”

She added: “Unpaid work can help local communities and give offenders experience of hard work. But it should be work that the local community tells the court that it wants done and the local community must be able to see that it has actually been carried out.” Some 6.5m hours of unpaid work -worth an estimated £34m – were completed by offenders last year. John Reid, the home secretary, has already said that mayors in 42 probation areas will be able to put forward ideas for schemes.