The criminal justice system is running on fumes. So said Francis FitzGibbon QC, former chair of the Criminal Bar Association, on the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday. His comments came on the back of Sir Brian Leveson’s ‘exit’ interview with the BBC. Sir Brian, who retired yesterday as head judge of criminal justice, warned the system could collapse without investment. ‘I don’t think there is sufficient resource to cope with its requirements. Ultimately, if the system doesn’t get appropriate investment the system can collapse,’ he said.
A damming indictment of the state of our justice system.
The details and the statistics are stark and well known to all those who have read The Secret Barrister: Stories of the Law and how its broken. The Ministry of Justice had sustained 27% cuts in real terms over a decade and the Crown Prosecution Service 34%. Between September 2010 and September 2017, the number of police officers in England and Wales fell by almost 20,000. According to the Home Office, fewer than one in 10 reported crimes (9%) result in a charge or summons – the lowest detection rate since 2015.
The prison service has faced similar savage cuts resulting in the bizarre decision to get rid of experienced staff only to see panic re-recruitment of young inexperienced staff who are leaving in alarming rates almost as soon as they are in post.
There are parallels with the National Health Service, both being held up a jewels in the Crown of a once respected nation. As the anonymous spokesperson said in response to Sir Brian’s comments: ‘Our legal system is rightly revered and renowned across the world’. Such comments ring hollow when research shows that only 55% of people who have been a victim or witness in criminal proceedings would be prepared to go through it again. Our healthcare system ranks only 19th in the world’s top 25 healthcare systems and the relatives of the people who died after eating contaminated sandwiches in hospital might question why it is only that which triggered a root and branch review of food in hospitals.
There is more interest in the health system because more of us use it. The general public hope they will never need to get involved in the criminal justice system.
But you get what you pay for. Complex systems of justice and health need constant investment and improvement. Follow the money and you see where political priorities lie. Prime Minister, all but elect, Johnson showed his primary concern in a blatant bribe to those about to elect him in the form of tax cuts for higher rate tax payers. His Tory faithful should wish that they don’t get caught in the criminal justice system like MP Nigel Evans. The former Commons deputy speaker spent his life savings defending himself against false accusations of rape and sexual abuse. He supported the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (Laspo) when it was passed by parliament in 2012, He has said he would now vote against the legal aid cuts that followed and now says the legal system needs an injection of cash.
Sir Brian also talked of his opposition to the abolition of short prison sentences in contradiction to the views of the shortly to be replaced, Secretary of State for Justice David Gauke and most penal reformers. Everyone agrees we need to reduce the prison population but we should be aware that it is not a magic bullet to solve the prisons crisis.
While there is much concentration on sentencing at the front end, a major current problem is getting people out safely. Many prisoners on ever longer sentences are not being well served by a chaotic prison system. Ill-prepared for release through parole or quickly recalled when unable to cope with release many will go ever longer beyond their tariff or be unable to benefit from the flexible components of fixed sentences.
But underpinning the problems of those who can’t get out and those who might be diverted from coming in is the collapse of the Probation System. Blamed on the hapless Chris Grayling its demise has been ongoing for over a decade. But we are where we are and plans to bring the system back under state control are being drawn up. A blueprint for the change has been produced which has been described at one extreme as aspirational and the other as gobbledegook. Real intent however is revealed in the finances of it all which can only be described as opaque.
When Francis FitzGibbon was asked later in this morning’s interview what he saw as the way forward he said quite simply: ‘People’. He couldn’t be more right. The Criminal Justice System is the people business. Individuals arrested on a Friday night need a lawyer to attend the police cells into the early hours and in court first thing Monday morning.
Police officers and prosecutors need the time, manpower and technology to analyse mountains of digital evidence. Prison officers need training, leadership and colleagues to support them. Probation officers need to be motivated by something other than tick boxes and profit. The MoJ talks not of investment in people but in digitisation.: process trumps people.
But what of victims? We pay lip service to them with a Victim’s Code, Victim’s minister, Victim’s Commissioner, Victim’s Personal Statement, etc etc. none of which seem to benefit the experiences of those at the sharpest end of the system. Research with victims show that what they want most is not to be a victim in the first place and most of all not for whatever happened to them to be repeated.
But Home Office figures suggest that only 9% of reported crimes result in a charge or summons – the lowest detection rate since 2015. This makes a nonsense of reoffending rates for prisoners coming out of jail. We perhaps should only talk of re-conviction rates which will be as meaningless as the estimated costs of re-offending at £15 billion a year. The general public have little understanding of just how bad it is. Those living on blighted inner city estates get it.
For these communities the underlying issues are not just about funding.
The next chancellor, not just the next PM or Justice Secretary, need to look at the huge costs of an ineffective justice system. But we should talk about a justice system that in effect it is not a system but a number of services trying to join up.
And in doing this they need to be honest about the role that inequality and exclusion plays. We need to look at the care system, school exclusions, mental health services, the role of our drug laws in criminalising the young. We need to better fund all aspects of early intervention, prevention rather than cure.
As Desmond Tutu said: ‘There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.’