Why on earth do we need more criminal justice legislation? Over the last 15 years we have had numerous bills go through, each adding more crimes to the statute book, and leaving the courts unable to cope with the rapid change.
Yesterday, the Lord Chancellor introduced a new Criminal Justice and Courts bill. There is no over-riding principle behind the changes in it – they are incredibly disparate – but the tone is punitive.
One of the most worrying proposals is a move to charge convicted criminals for their court costs. Nobody thinks convicted criminals should not make amends for their crimes, but financial penalties are not the most effective means. Already the courts face huge problems getting fines paid.
Now offenders have to pay a victim surcharge too. Offenders are often incredibly poor and, once convicted, have very little access to cash. This will add to their list of debts, and may bring in less to the courts than it costs to collect. I’m particularly concerned by the suggestion in the Bill that defendants should pay for unsuccessful appeals. The financial barriers to appealing sentences are already considerable (PDF). An accessible appeals system is at the heart of a humane justice system.
It should not be sacrificed at the altar of austerity.
Is justice also threatened by the proposal to let magistrates sit in judgement on their own? The proposal in the bill is that magistrates should preside over uncontested cases, and those with predictable penalties. “These provisions will allow adult defendants, charged with these summary-only non-imprisonable offences, to be tried and sentenced by a single magistrate… and remove the obligation to hear these prescribed cases in open court”.
There are several concerning aspects to this, firstly that a principle of our justice system is that it should be open and transparent, secondly, that the vast majority of cases dealt with in the magistrates’ court deal with summary-only, non-imprisonable offences.
Important decisions on process and sentencing still need to be made in these cases, and these should be made by three magistrates, not one. I have another, less important, concern about the impact of this change on magistrate numbers.
The number of magistrates in England and Wales has been dropping rapidly over the last few years – down 20% since 2008 – due to falling workload in the courts. This has led to a decline in diversity, with magistrates older and less representative of ethnic minorities than in 1999 (PDF). If magistrates sit on their own, their numbers will reduce even further, as will their diversity. Transform Justice are holding a free event “Magistrates : representative of the people?” to discuss just this crisis in diversity – book HERE.
Do we need a new children’s prison, as proposed in the bill, when numbers of under eighteen year olds in custody have been falling sharply? Some of our children’s prisons, particularly the Young Offender Institutions, are inadequate, but money would be better spent on places in secure children’s homes and on improving the services available (HERE). Or on designing a truly effective and humane institution for the very few children who need to be locked up because they pose a danger to others. The new proposals for a secure college are about saving money and the institution proposed is too big and unsuitable for the youngest children – it aims to span the 12-17 age range.
There are a few good ideas in this bill – 17 year olds should not be cautioned without an appropriate adult present – but there are also some very worrying ones. Thankfully it is the last criminal justice bill that can be fitted in before the end of the parliament.