Law Society of England and Wales reports says urgent intervention needed to save the criminal justice system in England and Wales.
A decade of underfunding has left the criminal justice system in a perilous state with every part of the process floundering, the report reveals.
“At breaking point”
“The criminal justice system can touch any one of us, at any time,” said Law Society president Christina Blacklaws. “Suddenly - and quite unexpectedly - we could find ourselves as defendant, victim or witness in a criminal proceeding. We rely upon the criminal justice system to ensure our rights are protected and justice is served, but it’s a system that’s crumbling.” The report uncovers a system at breaking point. Its failures are leading to some specific impacts. A failing criminal justice system is undermining justice in countless ways, with the stringent legal aid means test preventing many on low incomes, or in poverty, from accessing justice. Those who sit just above these modest legal aid thresholds are impacted by the ‘innocence tax,’ meaning someone can be found not guilty of a crime but can only claim back some of their costs at legal aid rates. Court closures are making it harder for people to access justice locally. There is a negative impact on people’s lives, because the system is based on the principle people are innocent until proven guilty, yet lives can be ruined before a case even reaches trial. “Release under investigation” means suspects and victims can be left in limbo for months waiting to know whether the police are going to pursue a case. Delays in the disclosure of evidence proving someone’s innocence can have a massively detrimental impact on the life of the accused, meaning they must go through a whole legal process which would have been unnecessary if evidence had been disclosed sooner. The fact cases can be cancelled at the last minute due to ‘warned’ and ‘floating’ lists compounds this - people can emotionally prepare themselves for their case to be heard, only to find out on the day it has been delayed for another few months.
Increasing pressures on the criminal justice system is dire situation only likely to get worse, the reports says, due to increasing pressures on the criminal justice system. The average age of a criminal duty solicitor across the whole of England and Wales is now 47, and in many regions the average age is even higher. In as few as five years there could be areas of the country which have no access to a criminal duty solicitor. The reason behind the shortage is that criminal legal aid fees are extremely low and have not been increased since the 1990s. As the numbers drop, the stresses on those who remain worsen, making the role even more unattractive. This creates a vicious spiral. Christina Blacklaws added, “Since 2011/2012, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has lost a quarter of its budget. This has led to significant cuts to our courts and tribunals, legal advice and representation. This is a system which is, without exaggeration, on the brink of the collapse. For victims and the accused, a journey through the system is akin to a nightmare.” Ms Blacklaws explained, “Unsurprisingly, it is those on lower and middle incomes who bear the greatest burden. A recent survey found 60 per cent of respondents believe people on low incomes are more likely to be convicted of crimes than wealthy people. Justice and the rule of law are supposed to be core British values. If we fail to act now, we risk consigning that legacy to the history books – as thousands risk falling through the gaps.” She warned, “It’s time to fix our ailing criminal justice system. Before it’s too late.”
Legal aid means test: The legal aid means test must be uprated as a matter of urgency. The Ministry of Justice should procure independent analysis of the funding required to assure long-term sustainability of the criminal legal aid system. A legal aid task force should be created to evaluate any proposed changes and consider their impact on the criminal justice system. Court delays: ‘warned’, ‘block’ and ‘floating’ court lists should be abolished. This will avoid wasting court time, costs, and anxiety for all parties. The report recommends the Ministry of Justice considers a target deadline for youth cases to be heard. Remuneration rates: Expert lawyers must be kept within the profession to ensure knowledge and experience is retained in the system. Efficiency: The Legal Aid Agency (LAA) should review the Defence Solicitor Call Centre (DSCC). DSCC could be replaced by an automated system, to improve efficiency and reduce cost. We also recommend a centralised IT system be implemented for booking legal visits to prisoners, which would benefit all stakeholders.