The problem with working at the edge of the cliff is that any push sends you hurtling over the side. If the criminal justice system was teetering on the brink pre-COVID-19, then now we are simply gasping for breath as we fall, wondering what will happen on impact.
Yes, there was a massive backlog of cases before COVID-19, but during this public health crisis, large parts of the court system have simply been shut down. Magistrates’ courts are tentatively getting back to normal, but Crown Courts are operating at a fraction of their previous capacity. It is simply unacceptable for victims and defendants that trials are now being listed in 2022.
Of course, health issues must be paramount, but I don’t understand the delay in implementing more coherent safety measures. Supermarkets have had Perspex screens up to protect staff since May, yet six months later this is still to be done in many Crown Courts. It is unbelievable that Chris Philp, a parliamentary under secretary of state for the Home Office, indicated to the House of Commons that this government has ‘managed to run the court system more effectively with coronavirus than the last Labour government did without it’ (Hansard HC Debates vol 680 col 785, 22 September 2020
This is worthy of a Yes, Minister script. In fact, it recalls the episode where Sir Humphrey had argued against closing a hospital where there were no medical staff but hundreds of administrators. ‘It is the best run hospital in the country,’ he protested at the minister’s plans to close it. As with so much else in 2020, satire has turned into reality. Just as Sir Humphrey proclaimed efficiency in a hospital without patients, so Philp proclaims efficiency in a justice system without trials, without defendants or victims.
Now, despite being designated ‘key workers’, we defence lawyers, who have shown our professional commitment time after time over the past few months, have been demonised by the home secretary and the prime minister as ‘leftie lawyers’ and ‘do-gooders’. Yet most defence lawyers who work in the criminal justice system, of all political colours, are dedicated to public service. It is quite simply wrong, dangerous and insulting to label us in this way. We have, along with prosecution lawyers and court staff, kept the show on the road. We deserve better.
We were, of course, brought to the cliff’s edge by the austerity that has been inflicted on the justice system over decades and under this and previous governments. We were simply not in a position to absorb the shock that COVID-19 has inevitably caused. Living on the edge has consequences, you see.
With no or limited Crown Court income for the past six months (and possibly for another year), law firms and barristers are in real difficulty and assistance from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) is urgently required. The wait for the Criminal Legal Aid Review
is too long and the risk is that there will be no dedicated professionals left.
To give another film/TV analogy, remember the scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid where the two outlaws are trapped on cliff edge and Butch wants to jump into the ravine below. Sundance doesn’t want to because he cannot swim. Butch laughs, saying that he shouldn’t worry: ‘It is the fall that is gonna kill you.’ Hey, MoJ, LAA, we were at the cliff edge, but it is the fall that is gonna kill us.