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Government accused of ignoring ‘calamitous failings’ caused by its own budget cuts with justice review

Legal campaigners slam pledge to review ‘key issues affecting the system’ after years of calls to increase funding

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Thursday 19 December 2019 21:57 GMT
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The Queen sets out Government’s priorities including Brexit, NHS, knife crime and immigration

Legal campaigners have attacked the government’s announcement of a royal commission on the criminal justice system for “ignoring” the impact of its own budget cuts.

Proposals outlined as part of the Queen’s Speech said the probe would “deliver a fundamental review of the key issues affecting the system” and “make it more efficient and effective”.

But a Downing Street document made no mention of nine years of budget cuts imposed on police and the Ministry of Justice since 2010.

Just 7.4 per cent of all crimes reported in England and Wales now result in a prosecution, while the number of people being punished for offences has hit a record low even as violence rises.

Amid a crisis of violence, self-harm and drugs in prisons, the government has already been forced to reverse disastrous probation reforms that saw offenders murder and rape while being supervised.

And while Boris Johnson has promised the recruitment of 20,000 police officers, there are questions over how the cases they solve will be accommodated following the closure of half of all magistrates’ courts.

The Criminal Bar Association (CBA), which represents barristers, called the launch of the royal commission a “tacit admission that the criminal justice system is broken and in crisis”.

Chair Caroline Goodwin QC said the probe must not be used to avoid “the clear and present urgency to re-invest the billions of pounds needed across the system to more than make up for nine years of successive annual cuts to the criminal justice budget”.

“We have to put an end to the gross imbalance between rising levels of reported crime while prosecutions have fallen to record 50-year lows after a decade of cuts to police, forensic services and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS),” she told The Independent.

“No more government select committee reports should be needed to advise government as to the calamitous failings by dint of lack of investment in the criminal justice system.”

The Law Society said any review must be “backed up with a significant cash injection across the board”, including to courts, legal aid and the “endangered” defence profession.

“We all want swift, fair and effective justice, but it cannot be delivered on the cheap,” said president Simon Davis.

“This is the only way to bring our justice system back from the brink. A failure to do so, or to invest partially, risks more crime falling through the cracks of investigation and prosecution.”

Last month, The Independent revealed that the CPS was trying to recruit 390 crown prosecutors to meet demand.

Barristers protesting against legal aid cuts (Getty)

The FDA union, which represents crown prosecutors, said the central problem with the criminal justice system was that “it is underfunded and needs proper resourcing”.

National officer Steven Littlewood said: “This announcement seems to ignore the elephant in the room: the decimation of criminal justice funding for almost a decade. The system is at breaking point and until that is remedied, we cannot begin to making it more effective.”

The Police Federation of England and Wales, which represents rank-and-file officers, also warned that any changes “must be supported by long-term investment”.

Chair John Apter said: “We have been calling for a royal commission into policing for more than 20 years, and while we await the details, it is an opportunity to examine what the public wants from the police in the 21st century.”

The government said it would soon draft a terms of reference to govern the remit of the royal commission, which will be approved by the Queen.

“The government is committed to ensuring a fair justice system that works for the law-abiding majority and gives a second chance to those who wish to make a fresh start,” a spokesperson said.

It was among a series of justice announcements in the Queen’s Speech, including “knife Asbos”, a duty on teachers and public sector workers to prevent violent crime and improved support for crime victims.

Following Mr Johnson’s repeated pledges to make prison sentences “tougher”, it contained bills to lengthen the terms given to terrorists and criminals who commit serious violence and sexual offences.

The government wants to increase the earliest point of release for some offenders from halfway through sentences to two thirds, as well as lowering the bar for whole life sentences.

Prison campaigners have raised concern over the impact on overcrowded jails, where violence and self-harm have been rising.

The Prison Reform Trust said the “politically-motivated change” would generate fresh unfairness in the sentencing process.

Director Peter Dawson said: “Sentences for serious offending have become dramatically harsher over the last two decades, but there is no evidence of any deterrent impact, or that public confidence has been improved as a result.

“The only consequence this bill guarantees is further pressure on a prison system that is already more dangerous, less decent and less rehabilitative than in living memory.”

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “A royal commission on criminal justice could present a rare opportunity to rethink our approach to crime and reform the system so that it works better for everyone.

“But much will depend on how serious the government is about its call for a ‘fundamental review’. Proceeding with plans to tinker with sentencing before the commission even starts is not a promising sign.”

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