It is no secret that the British criminal justice system is under extreme pressure with huge court backlogs, overcrowded prisons, court closures and repeated cuts to legal aid and other funding.  It is arguably a surprise that the criminal justice system doesn’t appear to be a priority in the run up to the General Election.

In a recent article, City AM suggested the reason the criminal justice system isn’t at the forefront of the main parties’ electioneering is it “only affects bad people”.  However, they rightly added that the public’s indifference would soon change if they were personally impacted by crime.

Which aspects of the criminal justice system need to be addressed?

Many factors have contributed to the current challenges the criminal justice system faces.

Firstly, cuts have forced 164 out of the UK’s 320 criminal courts to close between 2010 and 2020 even though the number of outstanding cases has increased by 78%.  This means it now takes an average of 683 days for an offence to reach Crown Court or 279 days to be heard by magistrates.

Public trust in the criminal justice system has dropped alarmingly.  People can see years of underinvestment has impacted the efficiency and credibility of the police, the courts and our prisons.  

According to legal commentators, this drop in confidence has not been helped by the government.

Tom Franklin, chief executive of the Magistrates’ Association, feels the government has repeatedly made knee-jerk decisions on whatever crises they are facing.  This has left us, in Mr Franklin’s words, needing:

“A fundamental review of the whole system, from end to end, bringing together all of the key organisations involved, and a proper investment in the criminal justice system.”

There is also a concern that the number of barristers specialising in criminal law is dropping fast.   According to the Criminal Bar Association (CBA), 300 barristers stopped practicing criminal law in 2021, mainly because they could no longer maintain a profitable practice. 

As a result, many criminal barristers chose to strike during 2022 and even though the strike led to a 15% increase in fees, it had no real impact because of inflation and the rising cost of living. 

The fact barristers are choosing to walk away from criminal work was brought into even sharper focus additional figures published by the CBA.  They found 64% of prosecutors and 66% of defence barristers no longer want to take on rape and serious sexual assault (Rasso) cases and will not reapply to stay on the list of accredited Rasso barristers.

This will obviously have a worrying impact on waiting times for victims and witnesses in the short-term.  However, as it looks likely that the shortage of criminal barristers willing to work on Rasso cases will only “accelerate exponentially over the coming years”, if the justice system is going to be able to offer any level of support to the victims of sexual offences, efforts must be made to make this type of work more attractive to criminal barristers.

What do the main parties’ manifestos promise?

While the criminal justice system may not be a priority, it is admittedly covered by the main parties’ manifestos.

The Conservative’s manifesto states they will recruit 8,000 more full-time police officers, build four new prisons providing 20,000 new places, cut court backlogs by keeping ‘Nightingale’ courtrooms open, funding sitting days, invest in court maintenance, continue the digitisation of court processes and expand the use of remote hearings.  They have also pledged to ‘match-fund’ 100 criminal law pupillages “to speed up justice for victims” and make sure access to legal aid continues.

With regards to offenders, the Conservatives promise tougher sentences for offences including knife crime, grooming and assaults against retail workers and more  measures to crack down on “hyper-prolific offenders” and those found guilty of enabling or assisting crime.  They have also pledged to give judges additional powers to demand offenders either attend their hearings or face an increased sentence and introduce a ‘Hillsborough Law’ to place a legal duty of candour on public servants and authorities. 

In their manifesto the Labour Party focusses on “neighbourhood policing”, promising “thousands of extra officers” armed with “the powers they need”, new powers to ban persistent adult offenders from town centres and force fly-tippers and vandals to clean up the messes they create, the creation of new criminal offences for assaults on retail workers, spiking, and the criminal exploitation of children, the banning of ninja swords, zombie-style blades and machetes and new rules to these items being sold online.

They also promise reviews of sentencing, probation and governance, the creation of a new Young Futures programme designed to prevent young people being drawn into crime, the fast-tracking of rape cases in English and Welsh courts and stronger protection for women in both co-habiting couples and cases involving stalking, for workplace whistleblowers and for the victims of crime and persistent antisocial behaviour.

The Labour Party has also pledged to build prisons and improve prisoners’ access to “purposeful” activities and their ability to construct a meaningful pre-release plan before they leave prison to improve their chances of securing work.

The Liberal Democrats are focussing on tackling the court backlogs and reducing the number of people on remand. 

They propose to do this by halving the time from offence to sentencing for all criminals, by implementing a properly funded strategy across the criminal justice system to achieve and by implementing a new data strategy to better balance capacity against demand.  They have also promised to develop a strategy to make sure there are enough criminal barristers, judges and court staff whilst improving transparency throughout the criminal justice process.  

In addition, they promise to gain a better understanding of the needs of all users, particularly victims, vulnerable people and those from ethnic minority backgrounds.

Another area the Liberal Democrats wish to address is youth violence and knife crime. 

They intend to adopt an approach that “treats risk factors” rather than “focusing on the symptoms”, investing in youth support services, making youth diversion a statutory duty and replacing Young Offender Institutions with secure schools and secure children’s homes. 

They have also addressed reoffending and promise to end prison overcrowding, recruit and retain more prison officers, improve training, education and work opportunities in prisons and improve the way offenders are supervised in the community.

The question of how the criminal justice system will be addressed in the upcoming General Election has not been limited to the politicians.  It also been broached by the Law Society.  The Society’s President, Nick Emmerson  recently presented their vision for the British justice system.

Mr Emmerson said:

“The upcoming general election is a key moment for our sector. It is imperative that the next government recognises the economic potential of legal services while protecting access to justice.  Our civil and criminal legal aid systems are at breaking point. If we are to maintain our country’s national and global reputation for fairness, justice and the rule of law, the next government must take action and invest in the justice system.”

Their vision is based on three key objectives:

  1. To unleash legal services to drive economic growth
  2. To renew our commitment to the rule of law
  3. To protect and secure access to justice

They have also been very clear in suggesting exactly how the next government should address all three. 

We very much look forward to seeing how the party that emerges victorious from the General Election tackles the challenges facing the criminal justice system, whether this involves keeping the promises made in their manifesto or paying closer attention to the three objectives put forward by the Law Society.

If you would like to discuss a particular case with one of our highly experienced criminal barristers, please contact us today.

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