In 2016, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee soberly cautioned: “The criminal justice system is close to breaking point.” Two years later, the warning having been ignored by successive governments, it is broken.
The causes and symptoms are many and varied, but one common theme towers over the landscape: since 2010, the Ministry of Justice has had its budget cut by a third, more than nearly any other government department.
The tell-tale signs are evident to anybody setting foot inside our criminal courts. Leaking pipes, collapsing ceilings, mould, damp and ubiquitous broken elevators greet those unfortunate enough to be forced to spend their working days in the Crown and magistrates’ courts. One recent disaster saw barristers forced to wade through raw sewage in order to reach the advocates’ room at court. Canteens have been shut; defendants, witnesses, lawyers, jurors and the public are unable to get so much as a glass of water or cup of tea while languishing in a public building which some of them are forbidden by law from leaving.
The way that criminal cases are prosecuted is in crisis
But it is not just the fabric of our decrepit court estate. Nor the fact that the government has closed hundreds of courts nationwide, rendering the concept of local justice a grim joke and forcing defendants and witnesses to travel several hours on public transport, often at their own expense, to reach their nearest court centre. Neither do the problems end with the shameful sight of victims of crime attending court for their trial only to be sent away for a second, third or fourth time because the court is not able to hear the case due to there not being enough money to pay judges to hear trials.
The malignancy spreads wider and burrows deeper. The way that criminal cases are prosecuted is in crisis. Since 2010, the Crown Prosecution Service has lost a third of its workforce, buckling under budget cuts of over 25 per cent. The police are down by 20,000 officers, expected to conduct increasingly complex investigations with 20 per cent fewer resources. The effect is not only that viable prosecutions routinely collapse due to basic error, betraying the trust of victims of crime, but serious failings in disclosure – the legal duty on the police and CPS to provide the defendant with material which may assist their case or undermine the prosecution – are risking the conviction and imprisonment of innocent people. Report after report shows that, again, the basics are simply not being done. Recent examples, such as the case of Liam Allen [a student wrongly accused of rape whose trial eventually collapsed] have shown how close to the brink some innocents have teetered. One dreads to think about the scale of the miscarriages of justice undiscovered.
On the other side of the courtroom, the way defence services are provided is crumbling. Huge cuts to legal aid mean that some people are now cut out of legal aid altogether, forced to either represent themselves in complex legal proceedings, or to pay privately for lawyers. The kicker? If you pay privately and are acquitted, you cannot claim your full costs due to a nasty little law introduced in 2012 and 2014 and known as the Innocence Tax. Last month saw the appalling story of the GP falsely accused of serious sexual offences who found himself out of pocket to the tune of £100,000.
Meanwhile, cuts to legal aid rates paid to lawyers mean that many junior criminal specialists are working for below minimum wage. Sympathy for lawyers is not high on the public agenda, but if you are the victim of crime, you want a good lawyer prosecuting your aggressor. If you are wrongly accused of a crime, you need a good lawyer defending you. Young people, particularly from non-traditional backgrounds, are being deterred from entering criminal practice. Those with a foot in the door are turning back. Would you hire a tradesman working at £4 an hour? What sort of quality would you expect?
Things are no better for those wrongfully convicted, imprisoned and later discovered to have been the victims of miscarriages of justice. A recent change to the law – another legacy of former justice secretary Chris Grayling – has made it almost impossible for the wrongfully convicted to claim compensation. Decades of people’s lives spent in prison for crimes they did not commit are written off without so much as an apology.
Prisons are a matter of national shame. Violence, self-harm, suicide and death have spiralled by up to 40 per cent in the face of – yet again – huge cuts to prison budgets and the number of experienced prison officers. Given this background, little wonder that prison is not making people better. Its brutality is matched only by its ineffectiveness.
Against all this, the public response is a deafening silence. People either don’t know or don’t care about the state of our criminal justice system – until it’s too late. This is why the criminal Bar and our criminal solicitor colleagues are speaking out. For too long government has got away with colluding in tabloid myths about “legal aid gravy trains” and “undeserving criminals”, using these as cover as they greedily scythe away at the justice system. Notwithstanding the existing problems, there are still further cuts to come. By 2020, the Ministry of Justice will have been slashed by 40 per cent in a decade.
The message needs spreading. The law is broken. And we all deserve better.
The Secret Barrister is a junior barrister and award-winning blogger | @BarristerSecret
Image: The Secret Barrister