For a long time now I have heralded my opposition to this Government’s policies concerning the criminal justice system under a banner which proclaimed how wonderful that system is. I have joined in the chorus of claims that we have a process of justice which is the envy of the world.
I now recant this boast. I was wrong and I readily admit it. I recently realised the error of my ways when addressing a group of medical practitioners who were partaking in some training concerning medical evidence in cases of sexual assault. We embarked upon a general discussion of the criminal justice system. I described to them, without exaggeration and with some restraint, some of my recent experiences of dealing with cases in recent times.
Those experiences included a crucial witness account being fished out of the bottom of a file by a bored caseworker and brought to counsel’s attention shortly before speeches, a set of instructions which included the admission that the case was poorly prepared, court orders that are routinely flouted leading to significant delay, examples of poor advocacy (not quite describing the High Court Judge as a used car salesman but some real shocking examples) and interpreters/prisoners/witnesses frequently being in the wrong place or even the wrong person (imagine my surprise recently when my case was called on in which the accusation dated back to 1972 and when I unexpectedly heard the cell door opening I turned round to see a teenager who shared the defendant’s name being he brought in to the dock. No wonder he looked confused and worried. Having already been sentenced for shoplifting he was produced at court on a mention for a rape which occurred 25 years before he was born).
As I have described here I do believe that the system of trial by jury, the functions of barristers, solicitors and judges, the burden and standard of proof, the concept an independent police force and a system of highly developed laws was a Rolls Royce of a system. It was absolutely top class. Sadly it is already lying in tatters. The carcass is there but it is in need of serious renovation.
The piece published here at The Justice Gap is a thought provoking item on social sustainability. The fact of the matter is that the costs of what has already happened to the CJS will be borne by society for many years to come in terms of miscarriages of justice. And do not think that miscarriages of justice are only those cases where the innocent are wrongly convicted. They also happen when the guilty go free due to incompetence or a lack of evidence caused by underfunding.
The Government, a responsible Government, should be looking to invest in the Criminal Justice System. That investment has to be in the people who are at the heart of the system. When discussing the NHS, politicians often talk about protecting frontline services. Well it is time they thought about a pivotal aspect of a free and fair society in exactly the same way.
The system is on its knees. The lawyers who operate the system are on their knees. There are two ways forward. Kick us all when we are down, as they currently propose, and the Government will be left with an edifice which is beyond repair. Pull back from the brink and the dedicated professionals currently fighting to keep the system from disintegrating will be able to turn it around.
Fighting to protect adequate remuneration is fighting to stop an eradication of justice which would appall us all if it happened in a totalitarian state. Do not let it happen here.
This is not a selfish fight about my wallet. This is why I became a barrister. If my first concern was money I would have turned my back on crime years ago. We cannot let this happen.