The justice system is as fundamental a part of our social services as health and education
We need greater investment in prisons and probation, courts and legal aid if we’re to uphold the rule of law
The justice system underpins everything we do. It manages how we deal with those who break the rules and offend; how we try constructively to prevent that, protecting the public from harm and supporting the victims of crime; and how, wherever possible, we attempt to rehabilitate those who have done wrong, giving them the tools they need to forge a second chance for themselves. At the same time, our courts system helps to protect our fundamental rights and provides us with a means of seeking redress when the law is broken.
To its credit, the Ministry of Justice has been one of the most legislatively active departments in Whitehall, in the last few months alone dealing with topics as diverse as divorce reform and the sentencing of offenders convicted of terrorism. Despite that busy agenda, due to a mixture of Brexit, Covid-19 and a myriad of legacy issues which have, for far too long, been kicked into the long grass, its to-do list remains considerable.
As we reach the sharp end of the exit negotiations, and given the timescales at play, the top priority for the department must be securing continued access to the extradition arrangements and information exchanges we currently enjoy with the EU. The organisations the Justice Committee has taken evidence from, including the National Crime Agency, couldn’t have been clearer: leaving these systems would pose a huge public protection risk to the UK.
Together, they allow the police, prosecutors and judiciary to co-ordinate the investigation and prosecution of serious crime and provide us with real-time access to offender records, information on wanted and missing persons, as well as biometric and vehicle registration data. It’s an area we urgently need to reach an agreement on.
Away from Brexit, the pandemic has undoubtedly put further strain on our already creaking courts system, creating a significant backlog in cases and changing the way they are heard.
There is a great deal of truth in the maxim that justice delayed is justice denied, and I would question the use of much of the work the government is doing on sentencing if it will still take multiple years to actually convict someone of a crime, doing little to mitigate the prolonged hurt and uncertainty that is often caused to victims. This is part of a broader problem in which we need to look seriously at the state of our courts (many of which are dilapidated and, frankly, not fit for purpose), consider how we attract and retain talented legal practitioners, and reassess, in a digital age, the manner in which courts should operate.
Linked to this are the concerns, widely shared and frequently aired, on legal aid. A reduction in expenditure, coupled with restrictions on eligibility, have raised questions on access to justice, with the reality on the ground indicating that many vulnerable people are encountering difficulties securing advice or representation. As is the case elsewhere, the pandemic has only exacerbated the financial vulnerability of a large number of those working in the sector.
Finally, as inspection reports have consistently made clear over a number of years, chronic and sustained underfunding and severe overcrowding has left our prison and probation system in a state of genuine crisis.
I have written about the remedies for The House many times before, and hope the government’s recently published sentencing white paper will offer an opportunity to initiate an open, informed and grown-up public debate on sentencing, the purpose of custodial sentences, as well as the alternatives.
The Ministry of Justice’s budget currently accounts for a mere 1% of government spending. The cost of righting these problems would be minimal in the grand scheme of expenditure and the benefits would be widely felt across society, particularly by some of the most vulnerable members of our community. That is a case a compassionate, pragmatic and forward-looking Conservative party should continue to make.
Sir Bob Neill is Conservative MP for Bromley and Chislehurst, and chair of the Justice Select Committee