New bill must not undermine access to justice

The government must guard against the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill further undermining access to justice for the most vulnerable, the Law Society of England and Wales has warned.

Increased funding across the justice system is also required to enable the bill, which has its second reading in the House of Lords tomorrow (14 September), to be a success.

“We support the ambitions of this bill to improve the justice system and help to build safer communities,” said Law Society president I. Stephanie Boyce.

“But we are concerned about the impact on access to justice of measures in the bill to increase the use of remote hearings, enable remote juries and make changes to pre-charge bail.

“Additionally, the justice system must be properly funded to deliver on the bill’s aims and ensure the system can meet the additional pressures the legislation will create.

“Victims, witnesses and defendants are already facing long delays with the justice system and those who work within it stretched to breaking point.”

Remote hearings

Research by the Law Society found that only 16% of solicitors felt vulnerable clients were able to participate effectively in remote hearings and only 45% were confident that non-vulnerable clients could do so.*

“While remote court hearings have worked well in some instances, including in administrative hearings, we remain concerned that in other scenarios they can have a serious impact on access to justice, and may not be suitable for vulnerable people,” said I. Stephanie Boyce.

“We believe there should be greater guidance around the use of remote hearings, the type of hearings they are most suitable for and greater data transparency on their use from the Ministry of Justice and HM Courts and Tribunals Service.”

Remote juries

“We oppose the use of remote juries and do not believe they have a place in the justice system,” added I. Stephanie Boyce.

“It is likely that enabling remote juries would be extremely expensive for the justice system, requiring new technology and IT systems, at a time when funding is urgently needed to tackle the courts backlog and address the sustainability of civil and criminal legal aid.

“The impact on access to justice is also unclear and unproven, with limited evidence of the impact of this change. How jurors interpret body language and facial expressions can be key in a trial and it is unclear what effect hearing a trial remotely would have.”

Pre-charge bail

“Changes to pre-charge bail may lead to people being left in limbo for long periods,” said I. Stephanie Boyce.

“We believe nine months is too long for the police to restrict a citizen’s liberty. Long investigations can also have a serious impact on people’s mental health, whether they are victim or defendant.**

“We suggest stricter time limits for pre-charge bail and the presumption against pre-charge bail to be kept.”***

Notes to editors

* Read the Law Society report on the impact of COVID-19 measures on access to justice and vulnerable people

**A survey of 109 lawyers conducted by the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association found 98% of solicitors said delays in an investigation have impacted on their client’s mental health.

***Keeping the presumption will require that the police must always provide a justification for their decision to bail someone pre-charge. The presumption was created by the 2017 reforms to restrict the use of pre-charge bail where it was not necessary or proportionate and to stop pre-charge bail being used as a matter of routine, with the significant impact on people’s civil liberties this can bring when they have yet to be charged with a crime.

About the Law Society

The Law Society is the independent professional body that works globally to support and represent solicitors, promoting the highest professional standards, the public interest and the rule of law.

Press office contact: Nick Mayo | 020 8049 4100

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