The physical decay and disrepair of public facilities are the most obvious manifestation of the impact austerity cuts have had on the country. They’re concrete, and difficult to ignore: in fact, so perennial are complaints about potholes in roads that the Chancellor was moved to announce a ‘pothole repair fund’ in last year’s budget to try and address the issue.
The same is true of the criminal justice system. When you engage with it, the first thing you notice is the crumbling court estate. Leaking roofs, peeling paint and general deterioration are now all common occurrence. But although our courts are frequently unfit to work in (or, indeed, to serve justice in), it’s important to remember that, like the potholes, this dilapidation is only a symptom of a wider problem. The UK’s increasingly shabby courtrooms are merely an obvious sign of the deeper crisis that lies beneath.
Justice was hit hardest of all departments when swingeing cuts were introduced in 2010. Former director of Public Prosecutions Lord Macdonald has identified the cynical motivations for this, noting that ‘legal services were particularly targeted because it was felt the public would not defend legal services. They were often seen as free public services for criminals’.
Cuts to legal aid rates of 42% and a real-terms pay cut of up to 20% for Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) prosecutors over the past decade have led to a situation where fewer and fewer young lawyers are choosing to practice criminal law. From May 2014 to January 2018, the overall number of practising solicitors rose by 7.8%, but the proportion specialising in criminal work fell by 9.4%.
A shocking lack of criminal defence lawyers under 35 in England and Wales is building towards what the Law Society’s Vice President Simon Davis has called ‘a legal aid desert’. Meanwhile at the CPS, which has struggled to recruit and is currently a hundred lawyers short on its own resourcing model, well over half of the workforce is aged over 50. When wider legal sector wages are booming, our under-funded criminal justice system simply can’t compete and it is storing up serious problems for the future as older lawyers retire and insufficient numbers are coming through to replace them. Who will serve justice when there is no one left to serve?
Of course, there are also more immediate problems as a result of government cuts to the justice budget. The collapse of a number of high-profile criminal cases in 2017 and 2018 because of disclosure failings drew public attention to the effects of austerity on justice. Column inches were filled with questions about whether the CPS was able to cope and whether it was being overwhelmed.
The CPS has stressed that just 0.15% of cases collapse due to disclosure issues, but it has also admitted that there is ‘widespread acknowledgement that disclosure issues are systemic and deep-rooted’. It is inconceivable given the explosion in digital evidence since 2010 that cuts of 28% to prosecutor numbers in the same period has not affected the ability of the CPS to deal with disclosure. In an FDA survey, 95.7% of prosecutors surveyed thought that the CPS does not have enough lawyers to deal with disclosure issues.
The Justice Select Committee conducted an inquiry into disclosure and reported that ‘we feel that the issues raised in this inquiry are symptomatic of a Criminal Justice System under significant strain’. They are not alone in raising this concern. The former director of Public Prosecutions Lord Macdonald has stated ‘without more funding, cases that would have otherwise proceeded to a just conclusion will not do so’, while Lord Neuberger, former Supreme Court President, said: ‘I have little doubt that unless we change direction, the rule of law will become seriously under threat.’
To protect the rule of law it is absolutely crucial that the public have confidence in the ability of our prosecution service to do its job. When the public starts to question whether criminals are running free, or whether convictions are unsafe, then we lose a vital part of our democracy.
If we want to see the very worst offenders in our society, the terrorists, murderers and rapists, convicted we need a properly resourced prosecution service, and if we want ensure that those convictions are safe then we need to protect access to justice and the right to a fair trial. Only when both parts of the system are working properly does justice prevail.
It is for this reason that the FDA, the trade union that represents CPS prosecutors, has teamed up with the Law Society and the Bar Council to launch a Manifesto for Justice calling for proper investment in our Criminal Justice System.
We are demanding:
- A properly resourced CPS – to protect the public with a robust and effective prosecution service
- No more cuts to legal aid – ensuring that justice is available to all
- Investment in digital disclosure – to maintain public confidence in justice
- Competitive pay and fees – to recruit and retain lawyers for a sustainable criminal justice system.
We are calling on those who care about justice to sign the petition to the Chancellor. It is not too late to save our justice system, but we must act urgently to protect it.