Is our Criminal Justice System up to scratch?

The Public Accounts Committee report on Efficiency in the Criminal Justice System was recently released providing a damning summary of the Justice System in England and Wales.

It has been described as ‘close to breaking point’ suffering from ‘too many delays and inefficiencies’ with an ‘insufficient focus on victims, who face a postcode lottery in their access to justice[1]’.

Not only are there shortages of judges in some areas, but the Crown Prosecution Service has lost approximately a quarter of its lawyers since March 2010 leaving it hugely overstretched and having a detrimental impact on the preparation of cases. In an earlier report reviewing the ‘Transforming Summary Justice’ initiative, it became clear that in only 37% of cases were reviews undertaken before the first hearing. Consequently, this has a huge knock on effect on the effectiveness of court hearings and on the ability of the defence to be prepared.

It is therefore not surprising to read that the Audit Committee report found that two thirds of Crown Court trials are delayed or do not go ahead at all.  This understandably has a serious impact on victims and witnesses of crime.

A functioning criminal justice system is the cornerstone of civil society. It is the system which investigates, tries and punishes perpetrators of crime. If it does not function properly then the public can have no confidence that if something happens to them, they will be protected and supported through what can be a very difficult process.

The report recommends that there needs to be further emphasis on victims and witnesses and that they need to be the central focus of the justice system. These people are who we should be protecting and should not be left out in the cold, often being left with the feeling that they were not supported through an incredibly difficult/stressful/intimidating time. There have been attempts to improve the service that victims in particular are provided with, by such initiatives as the Victims Right to Review Scheme and more recently, the Victim’s Bill, introduced to Parliament by the former DPP Keir Starmer.  However, the question remains as to why these initiatives still fail to do what they set out to?

This recent report lays most of the blame for the crisis the justice system is now experiencing with lack of funding and that different areas of the system have different priorities in terms of budgets. It was noted that the Government had now ‘exhausted the scope’ for further cuts.

Although there are plans to improve the system by less reliance on paper resources and greater resource sharing, it has been highlighted that in order to actually see improvement the Ministry of Justice need to change cultures and behaviours so that ‘everyone is incentivised to do the best job that they can and act in the interests of the system as a whole’. There does not appear however, to be any intention to provide further resources or budget in order to assist in achieving any of these goals.

The recent failed Victim’s Bill for example, was introduced to establish a framework for victims of crime and to provide for the training of criminal justice staff on the impact of crime on victims. However, it only got so far as a first reading in March 2015 and then appears to have come to a standstill. Whether or not this is resource related is not clear but it certainly demonstrates that in terms of putting victims first, the UK criminal justice system clearly needs a shake up.

It is therefore unsurprising that the City of London Police (COLP) recently admitted that they needed help combat the 3.2 million fraud cases being referred to them every year. This has now led to a collaboration between COLP and private firms in order to assist in asset recovery, not only to recoup money for victims but to hopefully recoup some money for the State.  Here, at least, some creative work is being done to work out new ways of working to achieve better outcomes for victims and to stop the stark divide between the public and private sectors in terms of capabilities to see justice done.

[1] House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts “Efficiency in the criminal justice system” First Report of Session 2016-17

Fani Gamon