People accused of crimes in England and Wales have a diminishing chance of seeing justice as the criminal justice system slides further into crisis due to years of underfunding and neglect.
“The reputation of our justice system - one of England and Wales’ most precious assets - is in great danger at a time when the country needs it most,” said Law Society vice president Simon Davis on the launch of the Law Society’s urgent campaign to highlight the crisis.
“Justice and the rule of law are key exports for the UK - but their integrity depends on the whole system working effectively. Years of neglect have heaped colossal pressure on the whole system and those who work hard in it.
“The right to a fair trial is at the heart of a democratic society and sets Britain apart from authoritarian regimes the world over.
“In our country, people are innocent until proven guilty after a fair trial – yet those accused are forced through a frequently unfair and nightmarish journey through the criminal justice system regardless of whether they are guilty or not. This is something we should all care about because crime can affect anyone at some point in their lives.
“For a democracy to function properly, the rule of law needs to be enforced. The rich and the poor should have equal justice, and cases should be resolved quickly and effectively to allow victims to see justice done and to return to their everyday life and focus on their recovery.”
The criminal justice system is now functioning so poorly it is impacting our international reputation.*
Years of underinvestment have meant the system is facing an avalanche of problems, including:
- an increasing shortage of criminal duty solicitors who provide defence representation to the poorest and most vulnerable in society when they are accused of a crime
- swathes of court closures which are impacting urban and rural communities and putting obstacles in the way of victims and witnesses and costing the taxpayer money as people fail to attend distant hearings, or are ferried by taxi
- impassable barriers to accessing legal aid for those unable to afford a solicitor
- victims and witnesses having to attend court repeatedly because of trials being adjourned again and again
- solicitors firms which provide legal aid services finding themselves in an increasingly unsustainable economic situation
- those accused of a crime being held on remand far longer than necessary because of inefficiencies in the system at great public expense
- failures to disclose crucial material from criminal investigations which mean victims can be unintentionally misled as to who really committed a crime
- defendants on low incomes forced to pay fees or contributions they can’t afford due to the overly stringent means test - thus threatening their right to legal advice and representation.
Simon Davis added: “All combined, these problems represent a criminal justice system at absolute breaking point.
“In the year of the government spending review, we’re calling on the Treasury, the most powerful department in Whitehall, to address the problems that affect all areas of our besieged criminal justice system by adopting our policy recommendations, particularly those on criminal duty solicitors, legal aid fees and the legal aid means test, which determines who is eligible for legal aid.
“The fabric of society is built around legal rights and obligations. These are what British values are based on and should be a cause of pride. By allowing our criminal justice system to crumble like this, we are disregarding and undermining centuries of progress.
“Without urgent action from the government the system will fall apart.”
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Notes to editors
*A hard-hitting Justice Select Committee report, published in 2018 said cuts to criminal legal aid are tarnishing the reputation of the justice system and denying people basic legal advice when they most need it.
Last year we published data showing that in 5 to 10 years’ time there could be insufficient criminal duty solicitors in many regions across England and Wales, leaving individuals in need of legal advice unable to access justice. These concerning statistics underline the need for reasonable payment for this challenging work.
The means test for criminal legal aid is too restrictive: People on low incomes aren’t able to access legal advice, or are having to pay contributions towards it which are higher than they can afford. Read our report into legal aid means testing.
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