Why we need a charter for justice
‘Collapsed’, ‘crumbled’, ‘cut to the bone’, ‘not fit for purpose’, ‘scandalous’, ‘unjust’, ‘failing’, ‘broken’, ‘dystopian’. All words that have been associated with our system for at least the past decade, writes Jon Black, a founding partner at BSB Solicitors.
A man is charged with sexual assault is to appear at court the next day. The prison van that takes him is stalled at the gates of the court because the court cells are full beyond capacity due to having to accommodate prisoners from a court across the town which has been deemed inoperable as a result of flooding.
Whilst this is going on it just so happens that a newspaper reports that the nearest court that could have accommodated these prisoners was sold off for a mere £20 million to a developer to build luxury flats sold for between £1m and £2.5m.
The occupants in the prison vans sit in their secure three foot square sweatboxes from 7.30am to 3pm before being told they the court won’t accept any more prisoners. The decision-makers need to go home, the day has been long enough for those administering justice. Lawyers won’t be paid for waiting all day without having seen their clients, prisoners are sent to spend another night in a cell without having even appeared or being advised by their lawyer as to what is happening to them.
The accused, having never been in custody prior to his arrest 48 hours previously now faces a return to another holding cell until the morning.
Dishevelled and tired, the accused is eventually advised through the plate glass barrier between him and his lawyer that if he does not plead guilty to the serious sexual assault at his imminent hearing then he will receive a 33% longer sentence if convicted. Now is the time for him to twist or stick. He is determined to fight these false allegations
The accused scared by this suggestion and having been advised by friends that they heard that legal aid has been cut to such an extent that he needs to avoid the state sector and pay privately, shops around for alternative advice. In any event, because he has a job in teaching, he would be required to pay eye-watering contributions to the Legal Aid Agency to secure the services of a publicly-funded legal team
The defendant knows that text messages between him and the person who they keep referring to as the ‘victim’ are likely to clear his name as they contradict the account given to the police. However they are not made available to his lawyer as they are not considered relevant by the officer in the case. Likewise the CCTV footage that may support his account of events has been buried in the files. It doesn’t matter that they may assist the defence, the complainant’s account alone means that there is sufficient evidence to for a CPS policy wonk to decide to prosecute whilst restricting his liberty and employment options during the long period that it takes to come to trial .
When the previously undisclosed evidence finally vindicates the defendant, he is tens thousands of pounds out of pocket. Despite his acquittal he has been taxed for his innocence and now faces the prospect of bankruptcy as a result.
Most will be familiar with the Liam Allan case and the outrage caused by the experience he suffered at the hands of the CPS and police. The experience of the accused above is a composite of events. I posted two tweets last week” one related to defendants unable to appear in Thames Magistrates’ Court on Friday March 9, 2018 due to lack of cell space; and the other was in reference to Coronation Street’s Kevin Le Vell being forced to file for bankruptcy having spent his savings and more in order to clear his name. Both horror stories attracted significant outrage
We don’t need more reviews into various elements of criminal justice system. They take too long and appear to demonstrate little but procrastination. Those who see its failings firsthand know the system and understand that everything is interlinked. We can try and fix the disclosure problem but it counts for nothing if those working on both sides of the system are not properly funded. You can close courts but it is irrelevant if defendants are unable to attend and our prisons become even more overcrowded with defendants who have been the victims of disclosure failures and lack of representation.
Reforms don’t count for anything without minimum standards targeted to achieve a desired outcome for those participants within the system – justice .
This is why we need the Lord Chancellor, David Gauke to understand that before we talk about ‘delivery service providers’, ‘best practices’ , ‘inception events’ and ‘local implementation’, they have to understand there the system can’t operate without a set of minimum standards observed by the courts, the Legal Aid Agency, the CPS and the defence and it is these minimum standards that we urge him to observe so that no one is caused to spend a day on a prison van, miss out on disclosure or not receive representation by a properly-funded lawyer in future.
We need all parts of the profession involved in the 21st century criminal justice system to join forces in signing and supporting the charter for justice insisting that now is the time not for reform but for repair, not by an outsourced handyman but by those that have put up with trying to manage life under the leaking roof for too long
The London Criminal Court Solicitors Association along with the Criminal Bar Association and the Criminal Law Solicitors Association are drafting a Charter for Justice encapsulating – as the LCCSA puts it – ‘the key principles that we can all unite behind and campaign for’. There will be a launch at the Law Society on March 26, 2018. More here.