And now, the latest instalment in a new children’s series provisionally entitled “Michael Meets The Justice System”, possibly published by Penguin (and now, happily, no longer barred to prisoners), in which the reader joins brand new Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice Michael Gove on a rollercoaster of head-scratching and belly laughs as he tries to solve riddles and brainteasers geared around the subject of criminal justice.
Today’s wacky puzzle sees Michael try to figure out whether there is any correlation – or even causation – between increasing inertia in the Crown Prosecution Service and the announcement of yet further cuts to the CPS budget.
The latest announcement – which in fact foreshadowed George Osborne’s edict that unprotected governmental departments, such as the Ministry of Justice, should find ways to absorb a further 40% cut – foretells the Crown Prosecution Service budget for 2015-2016 reduced to £482.3 million.
By way of homage to that modern fashion of extrapolating expenditure out of context to make a seemingly impressive point, that works out at less than 2p per day per person. 14 pence per week for a prosecution service. Which represents – and here I pootle towards my actual point – a cut of nearly 30% since 2008-2009.
Thirty per cent. Cut from a public service that was struggling even back then.
It makes for a far less hashtagable cause than #SaveLegalAid, but #SaveTheCPS is equally deserving of a Twitter campaign and some fashionable celebrity advocates. Pat Sharp, perhaps. Or Mary Berry. Because, in the words of Mrs Berry (probably), without a properly funded prosecution service everything goes to shit.
Cases aren’t properly reviewed if the CPS lawyer is dumped with two additional cases for every one she finishes reviewing. Important directions in court cases get missed if a CPS caseworker is running between the five courts he is expected to cover that day. Critical evidence isn’t gathered if there are no administrative staff to receive counsel’s written advice and forward it to the police. Witnesses don’t turn up to trial if there are no Witness Care officers to remind them.
And, ultimately, if the money isn’t there to properly prosecute offences, serious crimes go unpunished.
In a recent case, I was instructed to prosecute an extremely nasty armed robbery. Bookmakers, balaclavas, machetes and a flock of terrified, traumatised members of the public, all of whom are, unsurprisingly, receiving counselling to help them come to terms with something lifted from a nightmare.
The police had put in the hours investigating. Crime Scene Investigators had combed the premises, and had uncovered scientific material linking the Defendant to the scene. This evidence, however, has to be put into a certain format in order to be admissible in court. This is standard procedure. But it also costs money.
After repeated adjournments for the CPS to obtain this crucial evidence – after written advice from me, after directions from two Judges – the memo came through to me. We can’t afford to get the evidence. Bin the case.
A serious armed robbery was abandoned by the Crown Prosecution Service solely for reasons of finance.
I didn’t blog about this at the time. I didn’t even tweet about it – because frankly it is just par for the course. It will strike any criminal barrister or any judge as entirely unremarkable. Cases are thrown out by judges and abandoned by the CPS every single day for a variety of reasons, all of which can be traced back to a lack of resources. Crucial evidence not obtained? Lack of resources. Evidence obtained but not served on the parties? Lack of resources. Case where there is no evidence dragged to the day of trial when the CPS finally review the case and realise it’s doomed? Lack of resources. Highly relevant material that fatally undermines the prosecution case not disclosed to the defence, resulting in wrongful conviction of innocent man? Lack. Of. Resources.
A lot of unfriendly fire is directed towards the CPS, particularly from the bunkers of the criminal Bar, and while I would contend that institutionally it is an example of the Peter Principle in depressing, remorseless action, there are many decent, hardworking individuals trapped within. Lawyers, caseworkers and administrators who actually give a damn. Who recognise the constitutional magnitude of an operative prosecution service, who aspire to making a difference and who despair at the vicious circle of cuts and inefficiency that renders their working life a cruel pastiche of Groundhog Day, only inverted so that they are Ned and the government is Bill Murray, punching them day after day after day in their stupidly optimistic faces.
The prosecutorial system is not close to breaking point, or hopelessly stretched, or starved of resources, or any other splash-friendly cliché. It is fucked. Fucked partly by incompetence, but primarily fucked daily, nightly and ever-so-rightly by executive arrogance that assumes the public will be too impressed by the balance sheet to notice the absence of a functioning justice system.
None of this is new.
So when Michael Gove, in his recently publicised speech, gave the impression of being taken by surprise by the pervasive slothfulness of the criminal courts, he was bearing witness either to his naivety or his disingenuity. It’s akin to blocking a sink, turning on the taps and returning a week later, tutting and shaking your head incredulously at how very wet everything is. And then turning the taps on a little bit more and walking out.
This, Mr Gove, is the natural consequence of chronically underfunding an essential limb of the legal system. The real puzzle is why, having identified the problem, you decide that the solution is not only to further cut the CPS, but to pursue the devastation of legal aid for defendants as well.
#SaveLegalAid. And #SaveTheCPS.