“There will be slogans about saving the NHS but nothing about the criminal justice system.”
If general elections were a retail offer on the state of the criminal justice system, then criminal lawyers would need little time to consider their options. A government that has presided over the past nine years, during which the criminal justice system has imploded, would be unlikely to find favour. The report card would tell of legal aid cuts, austerity budgets, courts not sitting and a recruitment crisis. Even if I were not a card-carrying Labour member, that list would send me running to the polling booth to get the government out.
It is true that, for criminal justice or legal aid policy, the recent record of the two main opposition parties is not great either. The Liberal Democrats are tainted by their co-authorship of austerity and the last Labour government did not exactly prioritise legal aid or progressive criminal justice policy. Nevertheless, the scale of the current crisis for criminal justice cannot be underestimated. Corbyn’s Labour has promised more, although the detail on criminal legal aid is scant.
During the Blair government, we criticised the mantra of ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ as not paying enough attention to the latter part of that soundbite. The current government has forgotten that aspect entirely. It is not much better on being tough on crime either. Thousands of cases languish in a wasteland of ‘released under investigation’: an arrest has been made but the client has been released, in limbo while the investigation is ‘ongoing’.
The mantra is now ‘tough on crime, where resources permit’. The Tories’ law and order message fails on its own terms and keeps suspects, victims and witnesses waiting longer.
Many criminal practitioners have numerous cases that appear to be awaiting decisions for years. In one recent case, an officer told me that the scope of the investigation was being curtailed due to a lack of resources, even though there was evidence of much broader serious criminality. Cases are taking longer to come to court because most Crown Courts seem to be using only half of their courtrooms due to cost-saving efforts. The mantra is now ‘tough on crime, where resources permit’. The Tories’ law and order message fails on its own terms and keeps suspects, victims and witnesses waiting longer.
An even more powerful argument for change than the collapse of the criminal justice system, though, is how the current government is failing those whom we represent. Its policy of austerity has been nothing short of a disaster, the very fabric of the type of society in which we want to live being affected and eroded. Child poverty in working households was up by 50 per cent
in 2018 from 2010, Trussell Trust food banks reported a 73 per cent increase in use in the past five years
, and rough sleeping was 165 per cent higher in 2018 than 2010
– statistics that should shame us. Yet statistics only tell a partial story. Criminal and indeed all legal aid lawyers see the effects daily: clients without support networks, without properly funded intervention or diversion away from the criminal justice system.
The failure to invest is foolhardy and shortsighted. It holds our clients back from reaching their full potential. I have seen clients more intelligent and eloquent than me, who have ended up in Feltham on murder charges rather than in university on degree courses. Of course, there is individual responsibility, choice and accountability. Yet the function of the democratic state is to facilitate those choices, to allow better lives to be lived, irrespective of your start in life. Nowhere do you see that promise break down more than when you become embroiled in the criminal justice system. The destruction of local social services by way of savage cuts is one of the most malign and underreported aspects of austerity.
However much I wish that the election would allow debate on some of these issues, I suspect that I will be disappointed. There will be slogans about saving the NHS but nothing about the criminal justice system. I have declared my bias as a Labour member, but in my personal view, there can be no better outcome than a government of any stripe that will try to resuscitate public services, including the criminal justice system, that are currently on life support. The alternative does not bear thinking about.