The next PM must look at investing in a creaking criminal justice system

31 May 19

The rule of law could be seriously under threat unless the government invests in the criminal justice system now, says the FDA union’s Steven Littlewood.

Digital justice

 

The UK is set to have a new prime minister in a matter of weeks and now is the time to properly consider some of the major challenges the next PM will have to face.

Brexit hoovers up the headlines but there are many issues even closer to home that demand urgent attention and yet have received little. One of the most acute has to be the crisis in our justice system.

The FDA has recently launched its Manifesto for Justice, supported by the Law Society and Bar Council as well as the Secret Barrister. We are calling for four key demands:

  • A properly resourced CPS – to protect the public with a robust and effective prosecution service
  • No more cuts to legal aid – ensuring that justice is available to all
  • Investment in digital disclosure – to maintain public confidence in justice
  • Competitive pay and fees – to recruit and retain lawyers for a sustainable criminal justice system.

Our campaign is launched as a chorus of expert voices share their own words of warning about our criminal justice system.

Just last week, former director of Public Prosecutions Lord Macdonald stated “without more funding, cases that would have otherwise proceeded to a just conclusion will not do so”, while Lord Neuberger, Former Supreme Court President, said that “I have little doubt that unless we change direction, the rule of law will become seriously under threat”.

The previous director of Public Prosecutions Alison Saunders has also said that the system is “creaking” under a lack of resources.


'No amount of efficiencies and procurement savings is going to fund the level of resource necessary to cope with this. What we need is a root and branch assessment of the amount of investment required to properly process all this evidence, and a commitment to providing it.' 


Where can we look for solutions? Not amongst the contenders currently battling it out for the PM title. We’ve had some ‘interesting’ proposals for savings through departmental mergers from a candidate who has previously suggested re-merging the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice, but what’s needed is real investment

To understand the scale of the problem, consider the digital challenge to justice.

Twenty years ago, schedules of evidence in criminal cases were fairly short and straightforward. If digital evidence existed at all, it might amount to a couple of text messages. However, there has been an explosion in digital media.

Many people now carry two or three digital devices which can not only send and receive text messages and emails but can also store messages from a variety of social media apps including Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Whatsapp. Police also carry body cameras which can generate hundreds of hours of footage.

This is an enormous amount of information to look at. Just 1GB of data equates to 20,000 pages of paper. With the arrival of 5G and the so-called ‘internet of things’ the amount of information from our everyday lives that is recorded and could be used as evidence is set to expand exponentially.

No amount of efficiencies and procurement savings is going to fund the level of resource necessary to cope with this. What we need is a root and branch assessment of the amount of investment required to properly process all this evidence, and a commitment to providing it.  

Similarly, the issue of appropriate pay for criminal lawyers has to be addressed. Despite a recent rise, the pay of CPS prosecutors has stagnated by up to 20% over the past decade while legal aid rates have been cut by 42% in real terms. Wages in the wider legal sectors are booming and the inevitable result is a looming recruitment crisis for both defence and prosecution as lawyers are pushed away from criminal law and towards more financially rewarding areas of practice.  

If the criminal justice system is to attract and retain talented lawyers it has to be able to offer a remuneration package that is competitive with the wider legal sector.

If we believe everyone should have access to justice, if we wish to preserve the courts for future generations, if we want to make sure the guilty are convicted and the innocent reprieved, we need genuine commitments from our politicians to reverse the damage austerity has wreaked on our justice system.

It’s time that politicians started talking about these issues and making serious commitments to safeguarding our criminal justice system. The courts are crumbling: their walls can’t be plastered with sound bites.

  •  Steven Littlewood
    Steven Littlewood

    national officer for the FDA - the union for senior managers and professionals in public service, formerly The Association of First Division Civil Servants. 

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