I am informed that one of the liberties you can take as a writer with a (undeserved and long-suffering) loyal following is to indulge in a little creative sleight of hand. One might, for example, in an effort to gain wider attention for a mundane-sounding issue, attach a ludicrous and unrelated clickbait headline to draw in the unwary – possibly including a shareable photo – with quiet confidence that you’ll be forgiven once the Greater Good of your evil plan becomes apparent.
Let’s put that theory to the test.
Because, and this will surprise you, there is no kitten conducting criminal trials (or at least not winning them). The cat in the photo is not a registered practitioner. Instead, now that you’re three paragraphs in, we’re going to talk about the Ministry of Justice Single Department Plan.
Stay with me – we’ll be quick. Anger is conducive to brevity. This is the document published today setting out the MoJ’s “priorities” for the year ahead. The four key objectives are identified as:
- Provide a prison and probation service that reforms offenders
- Deliver a modern courts and justice system
- Promote a global Britain and the rule of law
- Transform the department
Of themselves, these objectives are inoffensive enough. Indeed, what the plan says about prisons has much to recommend it, particularly the emphasis on tackling reoffending through a focus on education and employment opportunities for prisoners. We’ll overlook for now whether bold solutions to improving prisons such as “preventing and disrupting serious and organised crime in prisons” are really solutions as much as vaguely-defined objectives. And whether any strategy to “ensure a sustainable prison population” can sensibly say nothing whatsoever about the steady increase in the average length of custodial sentences imposed by the courts. Those are quibbles for another day.
Because the silence that rings the loudest is that surrounding the dismal state of the criminal justice system. While, true to form, the MoJ trumpets its digital court modernisation programme at every turn (a counterpoint to which was provided the other week by the early progress report of the National Audit Office pointing out that said programme is already behind schedule, has “unresolved funding gaps” and will not deliver the benefits that the MoJ has claimed), much less is said about the problems that have forced criminal barristers to take urgent action and caused the entire system to grind to a halt. Below are just a selection, with the “Single Department Plan” response in bold.
- The dilapidated state of our court estate is a matter of national shame. Ceilings are literally leaking human waste and falling in mid-trial. Courts all over the country now have no catering facilities – defendants, witnesses, jurors and lawyers are required (some under threat of imprisonment) to spend the day in a building where the public cannot even get a glass of water. Nothing beyond a vague pledge to “continue the modernisation of our courts”.
- The widespread scheme of court closures means that many people now have to travel several hours to reach their local court. Close even more courts: “Use fewer, better, more flexible court buildings more effectively for the benefit of citizens.”
- The Crown Prosecution Service has lost a third of its staff since 2010 through budget cuts of over 25%. The problems this causes to the competent prosecution of cases is covered at length in the press (and in Chapter 4 of my book). No mention, save for a vaguely declared ambition to “improve the experience of victims of crime within the criminal justice system”.
- Disclosure – the vital part of the criminal procedure where the police and prosecution provide the defence with material in their possession which could help establish someone’s innocence – remains a shambles. As a result, innocent people risk conviction. No mention.
- The Innocence Tax continues to strip the homes and life savings away from innocent people wrongly accused of criminal offences. If you have a modest joint household disposable income, the state will refuse to give you legal aid, force you to pay privately for lawyers, and then when you are acquitted will refuse to fully reimburse you for your fees, potentially leaving you out of pocket to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pounds. No mention.
- Legal aid rates, cut by around 40% in real terms, continue to force local solicitors’ firms out of business. Bright young people are either deterred from joining the criminal Bar, or forced out after a few years of earning below minimum wage. No mention.
- Court listing practices continue to operate to please MoJ statisticians, to the detriment of victims, witnesses and defendants. People are dragged to court for their trial (thus allowing a court listing officer to say that the trial has been listed) only to find that their case cannot in fact be heard due to courtrooms sitting empty, as the MoJ won’t pay for judges to hear the trials. Trials are therefore adjourned repeatedly, sometimes until witnesses lose faith entirely and walk away from the process. No mention, save for a vaguely declared ambition to “improve the experience of victims of crime within the criminal justice system”.
- Chris Grayling’s policy to deny victims of miscarriages of justice any compensation for years wrongly spent in prison continues to bite. Unless you can prove your innocence, you do not get a penny. No mention.
- The number of unrepresented defendants in criminal proceedings is on the rise, and judges have expressed their concern in a report which the MoJ tried to hide (over which the MoJ has now been reported to the Information Commissioner). No mention.
All of these share a common diagnosis: they are the result of the unparalleled cuts that the Ministry of Justice budget has suffered since 2010 – 40% will have been slashed by the end of the decade.
What does the MoJ’s Grand Plan for 2018/19 say about this? Does it acknowledge the problem? Does it vow to fight the Treasury for the funds that the system desperately needs if it is not to collapse altogether?
Not quite. The MoJ promises instead to:
Maintain a continued tight grip on departmental finances
Which really says it all. This is not a department with an interest in improving the quality of justice. It is a cabal of ideologues playing financial chicken, tossing vulnerable people onto the motorways of fate with little care for the outcome, as long as they can boast to their betters about the tightness of their fiscal grip.
As of Friday, the criminal Bar will be withdrawing the goodwill on which the justice system runs. Documents such as this from the MoJ, making quite plain how utterly unimportant they consider our criminal justice system to be, make me seriously consider just walking away entirely.