Wales should have full control of its justice system with sweeping powers to run policing, prisons and appoint judges moving to Cardiff, according to an independent commission chaired by a former lord chief justice.
The Commission on Justice for Wales ‘unanimously concluded that the people of Wales are being let down by the system in its current state’ and recommended that ‘the law applicable in Wales should be formally identified as the law of Wales, distinct from the law of England’. Such a move would end nearly 500 years of a merged English and Welsh legal system.
The justice commission report argues that fiscal tightening by Whitehall since 2010, coupled the 2012 legal aid (LASPO) cuts, have contributed to a marked decline in standards. Against a backdrop of central government cuts, the Welsh Government has taken on the burden of financing much of the country’s legal system.
Government spending on the justice system for Wales fell by a third in real terms since 2010, to £723 million in 2017-18. The reason why total spending on justice in Wales had not fallen by as much as UK government funding for justice was because of funding from the Welsh Government and local authorities. ‘In 2017-18, this made up some 38% of the total justice expenditure in Wales,’ the commission noted.
The evidence heard by the Commission, set up in September 2017 and chaired by the former Lord Chief Justice Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, paints a picture of a significant decline in access to justice within Wales, including an increase in the number of people representing themselves in court without legal help; the growth of ‘advice deserts’; and increasingly high street going out of business as a result of legal aid cuts.
According to the report, the ‘fundamental problem’ resided in ‘the split between two governments and two legislatures of responsibilities for justice on the one hand and social, health, education and economic policies on the other’. The commission argues that the failure to fully devolve justice system matters to Wales has created a situation of complexity, waste, and a lack of accountability, and notes, as the Welsh Assembly has passed and will continue to pass unique legislation, distinct from those applying to England, legal divergence is not only needed, but an inevitability.
In order to address these issues, fundamental transformation of the Welsh justice system is urged, extending to;
- The creation of a Minister or Deputy Minister in the Welsh Government responsible for justice;
- Removal of restrictions on the Welsh Assembly’s powers to pass laws relating to justice;
- A devolved judiciary in Wales up to the Court of Appeal
- ‘Problem-solving’ criminal courts in Wales which placed ‘rehabilitation above punishment’;
- Police, prisons and probation to be placed under control of the Welsh Government;
- An independent body established to be responsible for the provision of legal aid; and
- Parity between the Welsh and English languages in the courts