The naysayers have been saying nay since long before I came to the criminal Bar. This is a dying industry, the wide-eyed prospective criminal practitioner is told. You’ll be squeaking into a criminal justice system that would be fraying at the seams, had the seams not been privatised and sold at bargain-basement prices to G4S and Capita. There’s no money for the police, for the Crown Prosecution Service, for defence solicitors or for the courts, and even less for barristers. What little money exists is spunked on a vicious circle of failed I.T. procurement and on locking up pathetic unfortunates for whom prison offers nil rehabilitative or deterrent benefit. The court infrastructure is stuck in the 1970s, you can make more money from betting that any given case will find itself adjourned due to the CPS having not served evidence than you can from actually practising law, and you can guarantee that most participants (or “stakeholders”, as we now must call them) leave the criminal justice system feeling that anything other than justice has been served.
To which I would say to my future pupil – it’s not that bad.
The criminal justice system barely hangs together. Most days, it is a thread away from disintegrating completely. If the criminal justice system were the NHS, it would never be off the front pages. Political parties would be clamouring to drape themselves in Magna Carta-embossed flags and declare themselves as the One True Protector of the Faith, castigating the constitutional vandalism of those on the opposite benches.
Serious criminal cases collapse on a daily basis because of eminently avoidable failings by the prosecuting authorities. Provably guilty people walk free. Simple, obvious, easily-obtainable evidence is simply not gathered – or where it is gathered, is not served, gathering dust on the hot-desk of a CPS caseworker juggling a three-figure caseload. More complex, costly evidence is not obtained due to expense. Sensible offers by defendants to resolve cases are rejected by Crown Prosecutors obsequious to their precious “statistics”. And victims of crime see their oppressors walk free.
On the other side of the divide, the accused find themselves waiting years for a trial, told their cases are “adjourned for lack of court time” for a third, fourth or fifth time, notwithstanding the brand new courtroom, built at significant public expense, sitting empty down the corridor due to slashed court budgets. Or they wait until the day of trial, or perhaps for eternity, for the indolent prosecution to disclose material information that fatally undermines the prosecution case. They find themselves represented by solicitors who can only devote a fraction of the required time to their case, due to the need to stack cheap cases high to remain financially solvent. Or, increasingly common, defendants are excluded from publicly-funded representation altogether, forced to scrape together savings or loans to meet legal aid “contributions” or private legal fees, failing which they represent themselves in DIY proceedings in which the endgame is a prison sentence. And people who are not guilty find themselves in prison.
It shouldn’t be like this.
Our system is on occasion brilliant. It can be devastating, fascinating, grotesque and glorious. It is served by some of the most magnificent, intelligent and compassionate devotees to justice and public service, and simultaneously infested by the most malign of self-interested parasites. The daily realities witnessed by the criminal barrister betray these eternal dichotomies. A justice system that could be – should be – so treasured by the public is lain to waste by governments seeking an easy cut, ignored by those fortunate enough to evade its reach, and suffered by the few – defendants, victims, witnesses – for whom the vagaries of fate lead to the courtroom door.
This blog aims, in its own insignificant, inconsequential way, through anecdote and polemic, to shine a little light on what goes on behind that door.