Has the Criminal Justice System already passed ‘breaking point’?

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So apparently massive cuts to the Criminal Justice System have driven it to “breaking point”, who knew?!

Well, anyone who has any contact with the system knew, that’s who.

This damning finding by Parliament’s spending watchdog the Public Accounts Committee told us what everyone knew, everyone except, apparently, the Ministry of Justice.

Meg Hillier MP, chair of the PAC said; “Too little thought has been given to the consequences of cutbacks with the result that the system’s ability to deliver justice, together with its credibility in the eyes of the public, is under threat.”

And how did the MoJ react to the fact that, under its direction, the system was found to be failing victims, witnesses, defendants, lawyers and, basically, all of us?

Like a snake eating its own tail, the MoJ said the report was clear evidence that it’s much vaunted reforms were much needed, totally ignoring the fact it’s their cuts which have driven the system into the ground in the first place.

In the wake of austerity – which has seen 27-percent of CPS lawyers chopped, legal aid slashed and courts closed – is a nice backlog of over 51,000 crown court cases. Coincidence?

Back in the autumn Michael Gove suggested, with razor-sharp insight, that one way of cutting costs would be to cut reoffending.

Yet last week we learned the privatised probation services are refusing to report breaches of court orders because it will harm their figures and therefore their bottom lines.

Last month we also heard violence, self harm and deaths are running rife in prisons.

Staff cuts mean there aren’t enough officers to allow prisoners access to education and activities which would actually cut reoffending.

Instead prisoners are spending 23 hours a day in their cells with only bunkmates and legal highs for company.

Between the cuts to police (another issue), CPS, courts, prison and probation, is it any wonder the CJS in slowly sinking in the mire?

The other day I was waiting for a trial to begin at Birmingham Crown a Court where a defendant was facing charges of theft (of a leaf blower), and aggravated vehicle taking.

The prosecution case rested largely on identification evidence which said the offender was a white, tall, ginger male.

Between his arrest, interview, charge, and plea hearing, nobody on the Crown’s side noticed (or bothered to look) at the defendant.

He was white, under six feet tall and had…brown hair.

Literally moments before the trial was due to start the prosecution decided it was best if no evidence was offered and the case was dropped.

This is one of god knows how many cases which are being charged, then free falling all the way to trial because there aren’t enough staff to properly assess them.

Between poor charging decisions, disastrous case management and woeful disclosure efforts, cases are rolling into court with as many loose ends as a plate of spaghetti.

Victims, witnesses and the definitely not-ginger defendant should have been put out of their misery on that case months ago, not to mention the waste of court time having a dead duck of a case taking up precious space in the list.

The MoJ can talk of reforms until the cows come home but you know what’s needed? Cold hard cash.

Investment. Plain and simple.

Pay for adequate numbers of CPS workers and solicitors to properly manage cases, provide legal aid wherever it is needed for justice to be done, pay for court staff and victim services to make an inevitably stressful situation that little bit easier.

Regularly in court I hear more mentions mentions of the public purse than I do of justice suggesting those famous scales may have tipped in the favour of cost.

If that’s the case, surely the system is way beyond breaking point and is, in fact, broken.

So what are the chances of proper investment in the system to revive its twitching corpse?
I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Where’s the incentive when most people don’t see the CJS as something they’ll ever need?

As law abiding citizens they’ll never be accused of a crime and being a victim is something that happens to other people.

The MoJ can wring its hands a little, promise it’s already reforming and then quietly leave the system in freefall until the next report is published.

Attention on Michael Gove’s is solely focused his EU escape plan and quite how he’ll retrieve his knife from David Cameron’s back.

If pushed he can talk about digital advances and proper punishment while ignoring elephant in the room.

All of the issues mentioned are well known. Everyone in the system knows there are too few workers for too many cases with not enough cash to handle them properly.

It’s simply not possible those at the top of the MoJ are working in blind ignorance of the effects of the cuts.

The only conclusion to draw is that neither Michael Gove nor the MoJ give much of a shit.

So long as they can claim they are trying, they don’t care how deeply the cuts bite or the implications for something as intangible as justice.

Until voters are dragged into the CJS it’s not really something that sways at the ballot box. They care about crime, but responsibility for that can be shunted off to the Home Office.

With no hope of investment and a Minister with one eye on Downing Street, the PAC’s report will go down as another marker of the CJS’s sad and lingering decline.

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Court on Camera; Roll up for the rapists and PAEDOS…or not.

D'oh!

In recent weeks and months I’ve watched as my profession makes itself look like Homer Simpson at the helm of Springfield’s nuclear power plant in reporting issues around the justice system.

From the reporting of the Supreme Court’s decision in R v Jogee  (judgment here) on joint enterprise to the inevitable FOI request into legal aid every time a high profile case (usually murder) ends, the media never seems to get it right.

Even the BBC made a hash of reporting the implications on joint enterprise, then led out on the outrage of the legal aid cost in the trial of Becky Watts’ killers.

Throw into the mix the disastrous three part documentary The Prosecutors, at best a tiny glimpse into life at the CPS, a worst an agenda driven puff piece, and it’s strike three for Auntie.

Thankfully the Beeb have been pretty restrained at the news cameras may be allowed into Crown Courts for the first time under plans announced by the MoJ (more thoughts on that later).

But others have run away with themselves again, like children being given the keys to the sweetie cupboard.

And so see the Mail and Express, unable to contain their excitement, found on the kitchen floor with chocolate around their mouths, candy floss in their hair and silhouetted in sherbet after their latest binge.

‘High profile murder trials could be aired LIVE on TV’ Mail Online reported (their caps). The Express took an almost identical line.

Both used the news as a way to link the story to high profile cases, Huntley, Yorkshire Ripper and so forth.

The headlines may as well have been ‘Roll up for the rapists and PAEDOS!!!!!’

In reality the MoJ plan is for a trial in just eight court centres (including Birmingham) focusing only on judge’s sentencing remarks and at this stage this footage won’t even be made public.

It will form a decision as to whether a similar setup could ever go public.

Future broadcasts would follow a similar line and so suggestions we may see live trials is way wide of the mark.

This will not be OJ Simpson in the UK, bloodied daggers will not be wielded in front of horrified jurors and viewers most certainly won’t get to watch the rapists and murderers squirm in the dock or witness box.

Instead you will see a fairly sober looking judge delivering fairly standard sentencing remarks outlining the case and explaining the rationale behind the ultimate sentence (again, more on this soon).

Reporting like this, while disappointing, shouldn’t come as a surprise really. The justice system is reported in some quarters in the same way as the NHS – grab the attention, alarm alarm alarm and don’t worry about the finer details.

The problem here is, it’s this irresponsibility that slams the brakes on access to things like cameras in courts, it’s the reason people don’t have a grasp on the importance of things like legal aid, a well funded CPS and courts service.

Part of the argument against televising trials is that media outlets would use it for entertainment, viewing figures, web clicks and would therefore use footage in the most sensational, if not accurate way, justice be damned.

Given the above examples, is there any surprise there’s apprehension about giving the lunatics the keys to the asylum?

On the whole I think the proposals by the MoJ are sensible.

Even I hade to read that sentence back to double check it contained both the words ‘MoJ’ and ‘sensible’.

The showing of a judge’s sentencing remarks would open a window on the system that for many is a mystery.

For some it will give a glimpse as to how sentencing decisions are made, taking into consideration the facts, mitigation and guidelines.

Of course for some they will retain their sense of outrage at the system unless judges order public floggings, tarring and feathering in the town square and the return of the hangman’s rope.

But at least their outrage may have some bass is in reality.

On the whole I don’t see this move changing things a great deal. Parliament has been open to cameras for decades and people still don’t have a brilliant grasp of the passage of a Bill through the house.

It will be dependant I suppose on which cases are recorded and where and how that footage is made available.

But more transparency of our justice system can only be a good thing and perhaps real footage, showing how sentencing works might help to counter some of the dodgy reporting we’re currently lumbered with.

Given Birmingham is on the list for the MoJs video trial I’ll been keen to see the process in action.

It’s Too Expensive…

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During a short hearing at Birmingham Crown the other day I got a glimpse at what’s right around the corner for our courts.

A defendant appearing for breaching a suspended sentence order had no barrister and told the judge: “They’re too expensive.”

Self-employed and earning a maximum of £300 a week, he said he had been quoted £480 for a lawyer to attend and make representations for what would be a 30 minute appearance.

He was told matter-of-factly by the judge: “You’re here for breach of a suspended sentence, the starting point is you go down for this. You need a lawyer as much as anyone who comes before this court.”

For those unaware, solicitors across the country, as of July 1, have ceased accepting new work under the Legal Aid scheme after a further 8.75% cut to fees imposed by the Ministry of Justice kicked in last week.

I don’t know about the Legal Aid situation of suspended sentence man – who was given a two week stay to raise the cash for a lawyer. What I do know is such scenes are set to become more common. The difference will be that two weeks, two years or two decades won’t be enough for many defendants to fund a legal defence.

For a better analysis of the situation, how we ended up where we are and what the future holds, check out the excellent blog over at Jack Of Kent that provides better insight than I could of the picture overall.

The MoJ insist it’s business as usual in the court system which, even if true (and I doubt it is), that won’t remain the case.

As more and more defendants, facing the most serious charges, find themselves without a lawyer, the system could grind to a halt.

The alternative is to proceed with defendants representing themselves. This is like telling someone who can’t afford a dentist to fill their own tooth, can’t afford a doctor? Do your own heart bypass.

Expecting someone without qualification to argue against a serious charge, with complicated legal issues and procedures, makes a mockery of the Rule of Law, something Justice Secretary (and Lord Chancellor)  Michael Gove has a constitutional duty to uphold.

Part of the problem is public image. Legal Aid just isn’t very sexy. Most people never need it so see the cost as throwing money down the drain on criminals.
The problem is that ignores the notion of innocent until proven guilty. It’s also short sighted of people to think they’ll never need a lawyer.

If you happen to hit someone in your car and kill them you could easily be staring down the barrel of a death by dangerous or careless driving charge. If that happens and you have no cash for a qualified lawyer, you’ll have to navigate the process alone and with little advice.

Justice comes at a cost. It’s a cost we all pay so that we all have access to an essential service if and when we need it, much like national insurance covers us should the worst happen.

At no time should a defendant, facing charges against the might of the state, find themselves in a situation where, fighting for justice, they have to tell a judge: “It’s too expensive”.

Crime pays…or does it?

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I didn’t expect to be commenting on policy so soon but then along came the Criminal Court Charge – a policy so absurd it dare not be ignored.

The first swathes of defendants affected by the Charge are just starting to seep through the system now.
This is a policy  introduced by the last Parliament as a way of making offenders convicted of criminal offences pay for the proceedings of which they are subject.
Costs very depending on the type of hearing – magistrates/crown/plea/trial, but what they all have in common is there is no discretion. Judges must impose the levy on any convicted adult offender who committed an offence after April 13 2015. Costs range from around £150 for a summary guilty plea at Magistrates all the way up to £1,200 for a Crown Court trial.

Some might support the idea of criminals contributing to the costs of running the very courts needed to prosecute them. All well and good. But this policy is so flawed were it to face a trial it would stand convicted of utter absurdity, thus finding itself subject to a Criminal Court Charge.

My first experience of the Charge saw a man jailed for 12 months for attempted robbery then hit with a £900 bill. That was after an early guilty plea, meaning a single appearance at Birmingham Crown Court.
I didn’t see his means form but I’m guessing this bloke, if he’s trying to rob a mobile phone from a drunk guy in Birmingham City Centre, isn’t rolling in cash.

And therein lies the problem.
Bearing in mind defendants already face fines, compensation, prosecution costs and victim surcharges – which will all take priority – I would be amazed if this policy rakes in a penny for the courts. By the time the two years expire how much will this guy have paid, considering he’s on porridge for 26 weeks?
What happens where defendants are sentenced to years behind bars? How will they pay? With meagre prison wages?

Repeat offenders will rack up these charges so fast they will just sit in an account, never shrinking until they are written off as a lost cause. But imposing them, tracking them and hounding defendants will take time and money from an already overstretched system.
As I Tweeted at the time of the hearing this is creating pointless and costly admin.
As the dubious looking Judge in court said: “I’m not saying anything on tape.”

The whole thing smacks of political posturing around being tough on crime without actually achieving a thing.
I’ve read some analysis suggesting these fees might force defendants to plead guilty, where otherwise they would challenge allegations, in order to avoid the extra cost.
I’m not sure that will be the case as these costs don’t apply if you are acquitted, so a successful not guilty plea would be worthwhile.
My biggest problem with this is the utter absurdity at the prospect of penniless defendants being hit with un-payable charges that will eventually be dropped anyway.
If this is the calibre of policy to be expected from the MoJ our court system is in for a rocky ride indeed.