Prison and Courts Bill - Panacea or Pandora’s box?
Dods political consultant, Sabine Tyldesley, unpacks the main proposals in the Prison and Courts Bill and outlines the responses from key stakeholders.
It seems Liz Truss launched the Prison and Courts Bill with the intention to do it all – do right by victims of crime; focus on offender education and health; reduce overcrowding; rehabilitating prisoners; empowering governors; make courts more efficient; saving people money on their car insurance premiums.
This article looks at some of the proposals in the Bill and reactions by stakeholders.
Prison safety and reform
In what has been called a historic move, the Bill sets out in law for the first time the aim of prisons to reform and rehabilitate offenders alongside a new framework of accountability.
The empowerment of governors and proposed league tables were discussed a lot in advance but the Bill itself does not actually give any detail on this. This will be set out in the new performance agreements which will be signed by governors.
The Prison Governor’s Association has urged their members not to sign them, over fears the lack satisfactory detail will turn the Bill into the “prison blame bill” and would not improve conditions overall.
Education and skills
The League table proposals would track progress made in Maths and English, starting with qualifications gained from April 2017 and introducing testing on entry and exit in the longer term.
Further Governors would be able to work with local employers to meet local delivery needs and target training and work in prisons to match the local labour market. This kind of budget control will however only be possible once budgets are fully devolved over 2017 and 2018.
Health/ Mental health
On health and mental health, there have been several calls for change following statistics showing a strong correlation between mental health or substance misuse issues and criminal behaviour as well as reports of rising self-harm and suicide.
The Bill proposes to track progress made in health, starting with a measure of medical appointments attended by prisoners starting in England from April 2017. Further empowered governors will be able to plan and take decisions about health services jointly with local health commissioners, through a co-commissioning framework.
Proposals for mandatory drug testing to counteract psychoactive substances is further anticipated to provide a greater focus on tackling drug and alcohol misuse.
The Prison Reform Trust suggest efforts to curb sentence inflation. But Truss has already rejected any “quick fix” to ease the pressure on prisons by reducing sentences.
On rehabilitation Napo pointed out the Bill omitted any mention of the Probation Service. Rehabilitation companies had been exposed by the Public Accounts Committee in September as not having delivered the promised 'rehabilitation revolution' criticising lack of performance data.
The Bill includes measures to prepare prisoners for life outside by measuring the suitability of accommodation and rates of sustainable employment, but further proposals remain tbc.
MOJ promised available metrics for performance data in place from April 2017 and as part of the review of the probation system, announced further plans published by summer 2017. The sector also anticipates further detail on the new Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, amid concerns this was just a PR ‘re-brand’.
Following several breaking news stories highlighting gruesome practices in the family courts, the Justice Secretary seemed moved to act. The measures proposed in the Bill would therefore prohibit cross examination of domestic violence victims by their attackers.
This has been warmly welcomed by Women’s rights and victims’ charities and is being served alongside the scrapping of time limits preventing vulnerable victims of domestic violence from obtaining legal aid for court hearings as part of a vow by the prime minister to increase domestic abuse prosecutions.
The remaining measures propose changes to make the courts more efficient by allowing remote conferencing for many hearings as well as the judicial process for pleading, penalty and payment (for fines) would all happen online.
The Law Society described plans as ‘woolly’ and while the Centre for Justice Innovation welcomes the introduction of technology to modernise court processes, they warn “access to legal advice must move online too”. There have been warnings overall that a virtual court system might trivialise minor offences alongside concerns over barriers to access to independent legal advice in advance of online hearings.
The judicial proposals aim to provide efficient and fit-for-purpose, with facilities across the entire estate that are modern and user-friendly.
The Crown Prosecution service has apparently already saved 56 trees by making case management digital.
Proposals abolishing local justice areas also mean judges would be able to move around more flexibly, measures some may see as an attempt to counteract the effects of a “recruitment crisis” to an ageing profession.
With regard to the whiplash proposals, there has been a savage fight over the assumed prevalence of fraudulent claims – with concerns being raised of the possible negative impact on access to justice.
During a Justice Select Committee session on the consultation paper setting out proposed reforms to the claims process a representative for the Association of British Insurers suggested the proposals would reduce care insurance premiums.
Hesitant to commit to this on the spot, the Ministry of Justice press release has now however guaranteed savings of around £40 a year.
Lawyers have shown disappointment, arguing that injured people would be ‘robbed’ of fair compensation suggesting the Government was conspiring with the insurance industry.
With legislative scrutiny of the Bill pending, the timescales for implementation of some of the provisions suggest Truss is hoping for a swift turnaround. And justified scepticism by the sector notwithstanding, should the measures take, Liz Truss would have managed to square a circle many thought beyond reform. At this point however, with many moving parts to this Bill, there is the fear it may not be fully realised or have unintended consequences yet to be seen.
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