The condition of a nation is counted, according to the sages, in the state of the education and prisons of a country. Going by those criteria we are in a parlous shape.
This was the message coming through from the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association (CLSA) conference this weekend held in Birmingham, sponsored by dps software, with their strapline: Justice Just Isn’t: Plugging the Justice Gap. Each one of the impressive line up of speakers gave the same message: If something isn’t done immediately to rectify the situation, the justice system as we have it, will collapse and soon.
Most of us, thankfully, have no need for criminal solicitors. At least we think and hope so. In the event of need, there will be someone waiting to help us navigate the miasma of police stations and the labyrinthine court system. Some one who will be on our side and help us through traumatic times, where increasingly, the innocent is assumed guilty until proved otherwise. And if we can’t afford legal representation, well, that’s what legal aid is for.
Due to the cuts, slashes and wholesale burnings of the criminal justice system this is no longer true. The High Street solicitors’ office that had at least one criminal law specialist has deleted the position. The local courts have been closed. The local police cells have been amalgamated. This is not the side of the legal profession the young graduates choose to enter. The remuneration is poor, the hours long, the frustrations real. Soon, through natural wastage, the highly skilled practitioners will disappear. When that happens and we are in need, who will come to our aid?
This conference pointed up the real dangers. And for once, all sections of this side of law were together. From Lady Justice Macur, the Senior Presiding Judge of England and Wales, through Julia Smart, Barrister of the Year, Christopher Henley QC, Chair of the Criminal Bar Association, Liam Allan, Organiser of Innovation of Justice to Bob Neill MP, Chair, Justice Select Committee, all agreed with the opening remarks of Bill Waddington, Chair, Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association. The system is in imminent danger of collapse.
Lady Justice Macur said there was compelling evidence of the fragility of the criminal justice system. Numerous concerns had arisen during her circuit visits. In some it was down to the physical state of the buildings, cells either had no heating or were closed due to uncontrolled heat, the buildings were in a poor state of repair and IT was defective. There were concerns about the verbal and physical attacks from clients on their solicitors, court staff and judges. Ushers were running from one court to another to keep up. Police were unable to act because of pre-charge bail. Prisons were inadequate as were conference facilities for client and legal representative.
Lady Justice Macur praised criminal law solicitors calling them “colossal cogs… conspicuously motivated by public service… with a fundamental belief in the rule of law and the justice system.” It was through their co-operation and collaboration, their professional pride and commitment that the system worked.
For Julia Smart, Barrister, Furnival Chambers, the single cause of miscarriage of justice was the poor or lack of disclosure of evidence. She described the case of Mr Liam Allan, where in court, the jury having been called, she was handed a disc of undiscovered evidence. Under pressure from all sides to continue, to keep the jury, to keep the claimant in her time slot, it was a constant battle to see that justice was done. She trawled through 40,000 phone messages that the police had decided weren’t relevant to the investigation and hadn’t disclosed to the defence, that night. The messages completely exonerated Mr Allan and the case was dismissed.
Mr Liam Allan spoke from the heart. He told how he had to say goodbye to his friends and family six times during the two years he was on police bail. He felt lost and isolated, still suffers panic attacks. He has lost his faith in the justice system but through Innovation of Justice is fighting for those people, falsely accused in prison, to be released.
Being seen to be interested in criminal misjustice cases would do him no good, was the advice given to Christopher Henley QC, Chair of the Bar Association in his first chambers. Needless to say he soon moved. He praised solicitors who plugged the justice gap, changing and salvaging lives. He described the current predicament where courts were closed, legal aid denied, prisons overstuffed and lawless. He was shocked upon learning the rates of pay solicitors get for attending police stations at the beginning of a case when defendants now sat in secure docks at a cost of £40,000 per dock which removed them from the proceedings and humiliated them. There had to be a radical reworking of remuneration for solicitors as there was now a crisis in recruitment. It was, he said, a matter of political will.
There must be a better measure of success than the speed the case is conducted, from beginning to end. Right first time must never become a euphemism for ‘just get it done’ in youth courts. It requires strong leadership from the top to change matters.
Prisons take up most of the justice budget so legal aid suffers the consequences. Far too many vulnerable people are locked up. A view echoed by Dr David Ho, Consultant Forensic Psychiatrist in his talk on recognising clients, who may be on the autistic spectrum presenting behaviours.
The public have a right to justice, said Bob Neill MP, Chair of Justice Select Committee. And part of that right is access to the means to help them defend their cases. He quoted a case where the solicitors had gone back to a house time after time, out of hours, seeking documents that the defendant’s mother couldn’t find. These eventually were found and corroborated the defence, leading to an acquittal. He emphasised the need for more payment. Though criminal law practitioners cannot expect vast amounts from a Conservative government, adequate money must be found. He too noted the dearth of young solicitors choosing criminal law.
What can we, the non-legal public, do to uphold that which we hold most dear- our right to justice? If we are not careful it will slip away from us without our noticing. There will be defence for the rich and nothing for the poor, except prison. It is up to us individually to call for better pay for those who defend us all. For if we say we don’t need them at the moment, when we do need them it will be too late.