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The criminal justice system has been at a tipping point for years but was pushed to the brink of collapse when Covid-19 hit. Yet, according to the justice watchdog, it is yet to make a recovery, and is still working at “unacceptable levels.” In a recent joint report by the four HM Chief Inspectors, serious concerns were raised about “the ability of the criminal justice system to recover, even to its pre-Covid state.”
As the crisis continues, the cases backlog grows and prosecution rates plummet, the government is now proposing to increase the prison population, too, a plan that has been called “madness” by prison charities.
Alongside ongoing and debilitating issues within the criminal justice system, after years of cuts and a lack of reform around criminal legal aid, barristers and solicitors are leaving the profession in droves, and those in the profession are now pursuing legal action against the government. Looking ahead, the future looks bleak, and drastic change is required to fix the crumbling criminal justice system.
On Monday, 16th June, the Joint Criminal Justice Inspectorates released their report on the current state of the criminal justice system. Their observations were damning and revealed that it is a “long way” from recovery. The report outlined that although restrictions have eased, the bounce back from the crisis is not happening quickly enough to reverse changes or restore performance to pre-pandemic levels.
In far too many instances, the report outlined, justice is “delayed, denied or disrupted,” and this is being caused by a number of issues, some of which predate the pandemic. Significant resource challenges were already prevalent in the CJS, prisons and probation services, likewise delays in cases going to trial were present pre-Covid, however, this has been exacerbated further by increasing demand on the system, junior barristers leaving the profession, and a failure to recruit new people into the profession including solicitors, barristers, and prison and probation officers.
Also highlighted in the report was the fact that the prison population is still suffering immensely, with prisoners spending 22.5 hours a day in their cell, hundreds of thousands of hours of unpaid work go uncompleted in the Probation Service, and Crown Court backlogs remain high.” It stated that, by the end of December 2021, 25% of cases had been waiting for a year or more to come to court, and the number of cases waiting longer than a year has increased by more than 340% since March 2020.
Commenting on the findings of the report, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Charlie Taylor, said: “We are particularly concerned at the absence of an overarching recovery plan. Instead, each part of the system is operating in isolation and left to determine its own course. Taken together, this presents a very mixed picture and progress is likely to be disjointed.”
Adding: “We hope this report, and our ongoing inspections, continue to highlight areas of effective practice as well as providing senior leaders with recommendations to rebuild and restore our criminal justice system in the interests of victims and all those who depend on it.”
The criminal justice system is experiencing challenges at every level while being underfunded, understaffed, and failing to achieve consistent prosecutions. The issues caused by the government’s failure to implement the recommended changes by the Bellamy review, including increasing criminal legal aid fees by 15% are far reaching, with many leaving the profession. Speaking about this issue, Stephanie Boyce, president of the Law Society, said: “Without that bare minimum, court backlogs will inevitably endure, solicitors will continue to leave the profession in droves and we will no longer have a criminal justice system worthy of the name.” Dozens of solicitors also recently voted to join the criminal bar in escalating legal action against the government over its controversial legal aid reforms.
Revealing the dire state of the system, an investigation by the Byline Times, also revealed the shocking state of rape convictions. Despite, on average, 85,000 women and girls and 12,000 men being raped in England and Wales every year, rape convictions are on a “downward trend”, one that was apparent “even in 2019”. Between 2011 and 2019, there was a 12% decrease in rape convictions. The investigation showed that when comparing these figures with those from 2016, the decrease is “even more stark.” The report outlined that between 2016 and 2020 those found guilty of sexual offences in all courts “dropped by 44% (7,511 to 4,165) – and before the pandemic in 2019, the decrease was 33% (7,511 to 5,017).”
At the time of the data release, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, in a Cabinet meeting centred on crime, said the government: “is making sure that we give everybody the confidence that we are on their side when it comes to the law and their experiences of crimes – particularly crimes of sexual and domestic violence – and we want to see more prosecutions for those who engage in such crimes. We want to see more rapists brought to justice”.
When it comes to work to support recovery, the inspectors highlighted that while the removal of the financial cap on judicial sitting days, the extension of Nightingale courtrooms and the opening two ‘super’ courtrooms were a step in the right direction, overall the impact was ‘minimal’. Moreover, the report said that the goal to reduce the Crown Court backlog to 53,000 by March 2025 “will do very little to improve matters.”
Alongside the ongoing crisis in the criminal justice system, the youth justice system is also struggling. According to the National Audit Office, based on ‘the collective impact of recruiting 23,000 additional police officers, reversing COVID-19 court backlogs, and tougher sentencing following the passing of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Reform Bill,” the number of children in custody, is expected to double by 2024. Andrew Neilson, the director of campaigns for the Howard League for Penal Reform, called this an “unacceptable state of affairs,” and a situation that needs to be reversed.
The Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, also recently released a report, which called for Young Offenders Institutes to be phased out within ten years, due to their failure to help children rehabilitate, with three quarters of 10-17-year-olds being reconvicted within a year of release. Likewise, the report also quoted a report into Cookham Wood YOI, which found that 44 boys out of 107 boys were held on remand. The report called this “tantamount to a national scandal given that they are children and have not been convicted of a crime.”
These concerning figures around children in custody are accompanied by a recent study by the Centre for Child and Family Justice Research at Lancaster University, which explored the “immense” harm that comes from imprisonment, especially in the case of young women and girls in the care system. The study, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, said: “Prison must cease to be a default option when the lack of support in care and the community essentially helps to reproduce the well-trodden routes between care and custody”. The report went on to make a number of recommendations, including:
Across the legal landscape, there has been a wave of critical responses to the justice system’s current state, the recent inspectorate report and the government’s plan (or lack thereof) to address the crumbling system.
Neilson, the League’s director of campaigns, said that the report “not only lays bare the crisis which has taken a grip of the criminal justice system” but it also “makes clear the madness of government policy, which is currently projected to increase the size of the prison population by over 20 per cent within five years.” The UK prison population already stood at 79,279 in April 2022. He added: “Expanding the prison population at such a time seems doomed to multiply the challenges faced, with a failing system making crime more and not less likely.” Neilson went on to say that the only way to allow the criminal justice system to “stabilise itself” and move forward, is to “conduct a fundamental review of the pipeline between courts and custody.”
Speaking specifically about the current situation experienced by prisoners, Prison Reform Trust director Peter Dawson said: “This report exposes as a complete fallacy the idea that the criminal justice system is back to ‘normal’, or anything close to it. The outcome for prisoners is the same — endless days spent behind a cell door, with all the disastrous consequences for both health and public protection that the report sets out.”
Commenting more broadly on the findings of the report, the Criminal Bar Association said the report “rightly concludes that there still seems to be no coherent plan whatsoever from Government to righting the sinking ship that it holed years ago before the pandemic”.
Responding to the report, a Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “We are pleased the chief inspectors recognised our decisive action saved lives and kept the justice system moving during the pandemic. Thanks to the almost half a billion we have invested and the extra measures we have taken to bring down the Crown court backlog – including extra courtroom capacity and increasing sentencing powers for magistrates – the number of outstanding cases is falling and we have now eased the restrictions across our prisons which kept staff, prisoners and the wider community safe.”
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