Government must commit more money to support vulnerable people in the criminal justice system

Posted On: 
2nd October 2019

The government must provide extra funding to help support vulnerable people going through the criminal justice system, a group of top legal experts has said.

Richard Atkins, Chair of the Bar Council, said extreme pressures on time and funding made it impossible for vulnerable people to be provided with the level of support they need.
Credit: 
PA Images

A panel of senior legal experts have urged ministers to invest more money into the criminal justice system in a bid to improve outcomes for vulnerable people and those suffering with mental health conditions.

Speaking at a fringe event organised by the Society of Conservative Lawyers and Justice, Dr Ben Spencer, an NHS consultant Liaison Psychiatrist, said the criminal justice system was often a gateway for them vulnerable people getting access to proper treatment.

“For many patients, the criminal justice system is the first point of contact for getting into care and getting treatment for their mental disorder,” he said.

“But it is really important that recognise this and that that contact goes well. That is their first experience for the rest of their care for mental illness, so it is also about how the CPS is going to… make sure they are supported and that they are treated well and are secure.”

But Richard Atkins, Chair of the Bar Council, said extreme pressures on time and funding made it impossible for vulnerable people to be provided with the level of support they need.

“You need a lot of time with the vulnerable. Either they have difficulty understanding and if they do have mental health issues it’s another issue,” he said.

“And when you get to my level… you are dealing with people who have committed some fairly major offences, and trying to deal with people who have obviously got mental health problems and then trying to persuade the courts that they have mental health problems is one of the most difficult things we have to do.”

He added: “It comes down to money and attitude, because most of the people we have to deal with do not have funds to represent themselves and pay privately.

“They rely on the public funding in the system, and I’m afraid for far too long the funding for the vulnerable has been far too low.”

Simon Davis, President of the Law Society, said this lack of funding had led to “legal advice deserts” in some parts of the country where advice on issues such as benefits, housing and family law were needed most.

But Mr Atkins said there was some “green shoots of hope” with the new funding packages which could bring more money into the system and provide valuable support for vulnerable people.

He added: “They need to fund the prosecution, they need to fund the advocates, the need to fund the probation. But maybe there is a glimmer of hope in the current administration and that they are picking up on that.”

Meanwhile, Andrea Coomber, director of Justice, said a growing awareness of vulnerable people in the legal system had led to “welcome” changes in how courts operate, bringing not only benefits for people with mental health problems, but improving the quality of the court’s decisions.

“There has been an increasing accommodation for vulnerable people in the last few years,” she said.

“You can now pre-record evidence in certain circumstances, there are screens up for certain vulnerable people… which are all very welcome for a number of reasons.

“One, it is because court becomes more accessible and more comfortable for people who are already “lacking comfort”.

“But secondly, it improves the quality of evidence. So, courts are actually able to take better decisions, and we should expand the use of these things, but as we know, they cost money.”

And returning to the issue of funding, Mr Atkins said without more support from the government there could only be a “rearranging of the deckchairs”.

“We need to find a way of helping the vulnerable get their help at an early stage,” he said.

“Some will have no prospect of success, but trying to explain that to someone who has trouble grasping it or has a mental health problem is very complicated.

“Without any more money it is a rearranging of the deck chairs. And its reliant on the very members of the professions, whatever side they are on, to help out.

“I’m afraid it is money which is necessary, but I appreciate there isn’t a pot of gold and there isn’t money to go everywhere.”

He added: “We are much more alive to the issues of how to deal with vulnerable people in the system. It’s a long way to go, we are doing it, we are getting there. I hope the promises of funding will continue.”