The criminal justice system is like a defibrillator in an old phone box: no one really cares about it until your life depends on it, then suddenly it is the most important thing on earth and you hope to heck it works. The problem is, the criminal justice system doesn’t work, in fact access to justice in this country no longer works full stop.
The assets that are needed for justice have been depleted as a result of underinvestment, neglect and cashing-in on property sales. Over 250 courts have closed since 2010 and there is no evidence of those proceeds being ploughed back into the system.
On a practical level, it not only means less cases being heard but also increased difficulty for those who rely on public transport to reach a court. Where I live, they closed the court, and it is now a hotel. In the next town, they have opened a “Nightingale” court in a hotel, which at least shows the Ministry of Justice has an ironic sense of humour, however misplaced.
There are not enough judges and magistrates sitting, and some courtrooms are empty. There are not enough court staff. This means it is very difficult to get in touch with a court, a phone call can take an hour to be answered. Emails disappear into a blackhole and are never seen again.
Barristers (certainly here on the South Eastern Circuit) tend to email position statements or skeleton arguments direct to judges email addresses rather than use the official court system. This often means if you don’t know a judge’s email address, they may not see your document until the hearing has started. Court orders are increasingly issued after the dates that are in them for things to be done have passed. That might not seem vital, but if you are a victim of domestic abuse waiting for a non-molestation order, so that you can show it to the police when your abuser sits outside your house, it is vital.
There is little to no legal aid available for civil actions. This means that there are more litigants in person, which in turn means more cases where the parties don’t know what they are supposed to be doing. As a result, there are more adjourned hearings because rules and directions have not been followed. This costs the taxpayer money, meaning the savings from not providing legal aid are frittered away while at the same time slowing up the system. It can take well over a year to get a civil case to conclusion and for litigants in person, it can mean being left feeling that you were not listened to and were at a disadvantage.
So what of criminal barristers, don’t they earn a fortune? No. Most work extraordinary hours for what works out at less than the minimum wage. The point that seems to be missed is that the Criminal Bar is a national asset, much like the court buildings. You cannot simply replace the years of knowledge and expertise when it has gone to work in the commercial sector or worse, left the sector altogether.
The underinvestment in justice includes the underinvestment in people. One might argue that criminal representation and perhaps public family law representation are the two most important areas of law that can affect an individual. Your liberty is at stake. In public family law, where a child spends the rest of their childhood can be at stake. If you knew that was going to be you, would you not want a plan in place that attracted the best minds and then looked after them and nurtured them? Why is it then that these are the lowest paid areas of law?
As a society we value our corporate bodies more than our own and those of our children. There is a two-tier system creeping like ivy across the country. Highly paid commercial lawyers operating in state-of-the-art buildings with efficient systems and criminal lawyers (those that are left) being paid peanuts and operating in broken buildings with not enough staff. Good justice for business, bad justice for people.
If you don’t believe me, go and look at the Business Courts at the Rolls Building in London, then go and look at Woolwich County Court. Oh wait, you can’t, they turned Woolwich County Court into flats. I wonder if they put a defibrillator in the lobby?”
Christian Fox is a civil barrister at Becket Chambers