Richard Atkins QC: Without fear or favour, judges apply the law - this must not be undermined

Posted On: 
23rd November 2019

The Bar Council represents more than 16,500 barristers in the UK. The Chair of the Bar Richard Atkins QC outlines their key asks for a new Government.

There is understandable public dissatisfaction with the state of the justice system, writes the Bar Council.
Credit: 
PA Images

This General Election takes place at a time of great uncertainty and instability in our country. The rule of law and independence of the judiciary are fundamental pillars of our democracy.

Judges apply the law without fear or favour, and this must not be undermined. Once highly regarded as a vital public service, today’s justice system is widely acknowledged to be suffering from years of under-investment. Crime is increasing, yet prosecutions are falling.

Too many people are unable to access justice quickly or effectively. As a result, there is understandable public dissatisfaction with the state of the justice system.

The Bar Council’s six recommendations, if implemented, should help restore trust in our justice system.

They will help rebuild a strong and effective justice system, which will enable everyone to have fair access to justice. They should also ensure that the value of legal services - both to society and the economy - is recognised and promoted.

A strong and effective justice system

A properly funded justice system is long overdue. For years, successive governments have damaged it. The cumulative effect of ill-conceived, short-term decisions over the last decade is undeniable: swingeing cuts to civil, criminal and family legal aid; court closures; under-resourcing the Crown Prosecution Service; the increase of unrepresented people filling courts; a criminal justice system on its knees with crime going up and prosecutions going down.

As a matter of urgency, the next Government must address the state of the justice system - justice must not become a postcode lottery.

We have fewer courts than ever before as 277 courts and 18 tribunals across England and Wales have closed over the last decade. There are huge backlogs of cases in many of our remaining courts and yet courtrooms are lying empty.

Court reforms must be fit for purpose and properly designed. Not only must justice be done, it must be seen to be done.

The next Government should recognise courts as a vital public service that contribute to a proper functioning society - like schools and hospitals.

Ensuring everyone has fair access to justice

There can be no place for an ‘innocence tax’ in this country. The current situation of the state prosecuting an individual, refusing to give him or her legal aid and then refusing to fully reimburse their private legal costs when they are acquitted is desperately unfair.  It must be reformed - access to justice is not a commodity and must never be a luxury available only to those who can afford to pay for it.

The Ministry of Justice budget is currently just 1% of total public spending. The next Government must reinvest in legal aid and reverse a decade of cuts.

Recognising the value of legal services

Our economic growth, social fabric and prosperity depend upon respect for the rule of law.

But it goes further than that.

The English and Welsh Bar is often the first choice for citizens and businesses across the world on issues from environmental harm to intellectual property to arrest and detention.

Legal services contribute huge sums to the British economy - £26.8bn in 2017.

To continue to facilitate access to justice and remain internationally renowned and competitive, following any Brexit, the next Government should determine to achieve mutual recognition and enforcement of judgments and seek to maintain the free movement of lawyers between countries on a reciprocal basis.

We should also continue to promote the law of England and Wales as the first choice of law between contracting parties across the world and ensure that our jurisdiction continues to be the forum of choice for the resolution of international disputes.

The Bar Council and the wider legal profession will continue to champion justice and our work. The Government must join us to safeguard British justice.