Is austerity causing miscarriages of justice?
Last Wednesday, Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL) hosted an event with Penelope Gibbs, director of Transform Justice and Claire Dissington, head of the youth department at Edward Fail Bradshaw and Waterson, to discuss the topic Is Austerity Causing Miscarriages of Justice?
The topic of miscarriages of justice has been publicised recently in the high profile cases of Liam Allan and Issac Itiary. The issues surrounding disclosure have been linked to austerity and whether budget cuts – to police, the Crown Prosecution Service and legal aid – have negatively impacted upon the safety of convictions.
Gibbs and Dissington tackled the issue of austerity and miscarriages of justice, discussing a wide range of specific issues, in addition to the general impact of austerity upon the criminal justice system. Gibbs explained that, unlike other departments such as health, the Ministry of Justice is an unprotected department. As the government’s austerity project was implemented, this therefore resulted in savage cuts – a 40% cut in real terms between 2011 and 2020.
She moved on to discuss three key areas in which her concerns regarding austerity leading to miscarriages of justice has arisen: unrepresented defendants, digital court reform, and appeals.
Gibbs argued that there tends to be media focus upon individuals who are unrepresented in civil courts, however, the plight of unrepresented defendants in criminal courts is less publicised. At least 30% of defendants in the magistrates’ courts appear unrepresented.
Gibbs explained the impact throughout the trial process: as the matter proceeds, the disadvantage to unrepresented defendants just increases – they don’t know what witnesses to call, how to cross examine witnesses; they don’t even know what disclosure is, never mind what their disclosure rights are.
Gibbs moved on to discuss the impact of digital court reform – particularly the use of videolinks and online courts. Gibbs’ concern is that this will increase miscarriages as there is significantly less contact between the individual and their advocate. Gibbs noted how these changes impact vulnerable people the most – lots of people find it very difficult to communicate properly via videolink. This generally results in two reactions: defendants completely disengage, or they react badly as they are frustrated by the difficulties in communication.
A study by the Ministry of Justice in 2010 trialled the use of video-links from police stations to court rooms, for first appearances. Of those who appeared via video-link, 45% were unrepresented. Further, a defendant appearing via video-link was more likely to enter a guilty plea; and is more likely to get a prison sentence.
Gibbs concluded that austerity is a complicated matter, but definitely has an effect upon miscarriages of justice. Amongst issues such as the low salaries of legal aid lawyers, there are many other examples of where cuts are occurring, which are creating a system in which miscarriages of justice happen with increasing frequency.
Dissington took a broad approach to the ways in which austerity can cause miscarriages of justice. She highlighted that austerity has caused police station closures, CPS budget cuts, the move towards digital court systems, cuts to probation, the dire state of prisons, and defendants being denied legal aid.
She moved on to speak passionately about how austerity impacts on society as a whole, thereby increasing peoples’ involvement in the criminal justice system. Austerity cuts have impacted upon the whole of society, causing increased rate of poverty. Poverty leads to crime. Therefore, austerity has led to increased involvement in the criminal justice system.
Dissington explained how defence lawyers are now expected, on a daily basis, to provide clients with advice on what they should say and how they should plead on their first days in court, without having received proper disclosure.
She spoke of how she specialises in representing youth defendants. If children are detained, they are sent to detention and training centres. Dissington queried the efficacy of these centres, citing a recent inspection in which not a single youth establishment inspected was found to be a safe establishment.
On disclosure issues, in addition to the concerns above, Dissington stated that the required safeguards are already in place. In order to prevent miscarriages of justice, the rules need to be properly followed, which they currently are not.
Dissington raised concerns about the future of the criminal justice system. She asserted that, even if it was properly funded, these issues would not go away, as they have now become inherent aspects of our justice system.
Dissington spoke of how when a child is arrested, they face the full force of the state against them. She asserted that a miscarriage of justice occurs every time a child or a vulnerable person is locked up. Austerity destroys people’s lives. The pressures of austerity lead to further crime: more people both perpetrating and being the victims of crime.