Friday, 7 June 2013

An exciting week in Criminal Justice


It has been a busy week for Criminal Justice in the news!

Firstly we had the announcement by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and HM Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate that cases were being delayed because police officers were not providing the right material to the prosecution in terms of disclosure. What a surprise! After all the training and various initiatives including Nareys, Speedy Summary Justice and Stop Delaying Justice, one would have hoped that this fundamental part of the process would be in place to assist the Crown, defence and the courts. Of course this government has savaged the police budget and one suspects that part of the problem is probably resources. By the way, and please do not tell anyone, I hear there is a new initiative on the way called the J.P.G. (Just Plead Guilty scheme). You will not even have to be arrested, the police will stop you because they do not like your car and fine you there and then and impose points. Where a trial is needed a van will be provided with windows to ensure the process is transparent.

This development was followed by conclusion of the consultation on Legal Aid. Mr Grayling, who has clearly been allocated an adviser as opposed to choosing one, rolled out the fat cat lawyer figures again. Additionally he then stated that it’s either a good health system or the justice system. This seems incredible bearing in mind that the £220 million the government seek to save on legal aid would not maintain the NHS for a day. Mr Grayling is in charge of the Justice budget not Health. Did Mr Osborne ring him and say unless you can get me £220 million I will be kicking people out of hospital beds (for less than a day)? Perhaps it is just the comment of a desperate politician shocked by the strength of reaction to this ill considered and rushed consultation.

We are entitled to, and should expect, a proper health and justice system. Mr Grayling’s ill advised comment about the health service follows on the back of his comments about individuals not being able to choose their own lawyers. Prior to this we had the consultation which on occasions refers to offenders and criminals as opposed to suspects, defendants and individuals. Bye-bye presumption of innocence and welcome to the J.P.G. (Just Plead Guilty scheme)

Of course, regardless of the MOJ offensive on lawyers, it is difficult to avoid the opposition of the judiciary to these proposals. They have responded to this paper by condemning the proposals. Sir Anthony Hooper, a now retired and hugely respect Court of Appeal judge, has also spoken out publicly against these plans.

The DPP has announced that victims can now challenge the decision not to prosecute the case in which they have made allegations. Whilst I applaud the sentiment of this idea, when one considers how under resourced the CPS are how will they cope with this additional burden? Most solicitors report great difficulties in obtaining disclosure on time or even obtaining a response from the CPS. Many summary cases are delayed or disclosure is late. This is also at a time when there are far fewer cases being prosecuted, not because crime is substantially down but because less matters are reaching the courts. So the numbers of prosecutions have been significantly reduced. The CPS struggle to effectively prosecute even that reduced workload. Now further resources will now be diverted away from the front line to consider reviews from complainants as to why their case is not being prosecuted. These reviews will probably have to be considered by a senior lawyer. So at court you will have designated case workers who cannot make decisions on cases and are not lawyers, whilst the senior lawyers will be back at the office considering cases when a decision has been made not to prosecute. You could not make it up.

In The Times there is an article about protecting the interests of young complainants giving evidence, which can lead to long term distress and trauma particularly as a consequence of protracted cross examination. Obviously defendants denying offences are entitled to their advocates robustly cross examining and testing the evidence against them. However the skilled and expert advocate should be able to meet that aim and be sensitive to any vulnerabilities issues that may exist around the prosecution witness. Will there be many left if the government proposals on legal aid are introduced?

This brings me to the conclusion of this piece. The government proposals in relation to the whole of criminal justice are frightening. Selling off the courts, probation, the prisons and the defence risks a loss of independence, transparency and fairness. Perhaps it is not about money, perhaps it about reducing state accountability. They have mismanaged the budget to such an extent that one wonders if the current team are qualified enough to manage this department and budget. The average combined fee for Magistrates and Police station representation is approximately £550. The approximate cost of delivering defendants in custody to court per year is £85,213,700 If 25% of cases in the Magistrates Court involve custody cases (this may be a substantial overestimate) then the cost of bringing a defendant to court for a hearing is just under £400. If of course the number of cases is nearer 12.5% then in fact the cost per hearing is just under £800. When you consider that the police station representation can involve several attendances and the court fee can involve a number of appearances the representation costs appear very good value. The transport costs seem very expensive. How can the MOJ have reached a contract on these terms with G4s? How reckless are they with tax payer’s money? I also understand that the MOJ are urgently reviewing what could be a massive overpayment on the provision of tagging contract. Are they paying more for the tagging device than the legal representation?

An independent justice system needs a properly funded prosecution, police, probation, court service and defence. All of these bodies must be independent, they are not economic units, and they represent the vital elements of an independent justice system; a vital part of a proper democracy. Mr Grayling, crime is down, you are saving money, stop what you are doing and proper engage with those at the coalface across the board of Criminal Justice.