The Round-up: criminal justice close to breaking point
31 May 2016
The criminal justice system is “close to breaking point”, according to a report released by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) last week, Efficiency in the Criminal Justice System. The report finds that the criminal justice system is “bedevilled by long standing poor performance” including delays and inefficiencies, where costs are shunted from one part of the system to another.
Last year there was a backlog of 51,830 cases awaiting a hearing at the Crown Court. The average wait between a case leaving the Magistrates’ Court and reaching the Crown Court is 134 days, compared with 99 days two years ago. The “disjointed” nature of the system – which is administered by different parts of government with different budgets – results in decisions taken by one part increasing inefficiencies in another area. The service received by victims and witnesses is not good enough, and there are “unacceptable variations” in the length of time victims have to wait for access to justice in different areas of the country.
The report unequivocally concludes that the Ministry of Justice has been “too slow” to recognise that the system is under stress and to do anything about it. The MoJ has exhausted the scope to cut costs without pushing the system beyond breaking point – since 2010-11, the criminal justice system has suffered a massive 26% cut. Even if courts sit on all days in their allowance, there are still not enough judges to hear all the cases. Since the criminal bar has reduced in size as a result of reductions in legal aid spending, the CPS struggle to find counsel to prosecute cases.
Though the MoJ have developed an “ambitious” reform programme which aims to address the inefficiencies in the system, partly through digitising paper records and enabling flexible digital working, the PAC were told it would take four years to see the benefits. Court users should “not have to wait this long to see real change”, they say, noting that “Government does not have a good track record of delivering projects that involve significant changes to IT”. They recommend that the MoJ do more in the meantime by better sharing the small practical improvements introduced by hard-working staff in individual courts.
The Bar Council have said in response to the report that while it sends an “important message” to the Government, the proposed digitisation reforms are not enough to address the challenges faced by the system. The “precious asset” of Justice should be ring-fenced from cuts.
- The Supreme Court last week upheld the decision of the Court of Appeal in finding that British expatriates of more than 15 years are not eligible to vote in the EU referendum on 23 June. Harry Shindler, 95, who has resided in Italy for 35 years, and Jacquelyn MacLennan, 54, who has lived in Belgium since 1987, had argued unsuccessfully that the 15-year rule contained in Section 2 of the EU Referendum Act 2015 was an unjustified restriction on their freedom of movement, in that it penalised them for exercising their right to move and reside in another Member State. Lady Hale, Deputy President of the Supreme Court, emphasised that the relevant question was not whether the voting exclusion was justifiable as a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim, but rather whether European Law applied at all, since only if it did was there any possibility of attacking an Act of Parliament. Assuming for the sake of argument that it did apply, the Supreme Court decided that it was not arguable that there was an interference with the right of free movement, for the reasons given by the Court of Appeal and Divisional Court. See David Hart QC’s previous post on the Court of Appeal decision here.
- An inquest has found that police unlawfully detained a 22-year-old man with mental health issues who was later found hanged. Logan Peters had been held in an unauthorised headlock and illegally strip-searched by police who stopped him on suspicion of criminal damage at a takeaway. The inquest heard that whilst in his cell Mr Peters had battered the walls with his head and tried to strangle himself, but was considered “attention-seeking” rather than suicidal. There was no plan put in place for his care following his release. The panel concluded there were “errors, omissions, failures” in the way Mr Peters was seized on the street, finding that it was “extremely likely” that the events and the “unreasonable, disproportionate and unnecessary force used… had a negative impact on Logan’s physical and psychological well-being”. This follows several high profile failings by police to look after people with mental health issues whilst in custody, such as the death Sarah Reed at Holloway prison earlier this year and Sheldon Woodford at HMP Winchester in 2015.
In the Courts
- IC v Romania – the inadequacy of the investigation into a young girl’s allegation of rape was a violation of Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment). A 14-year old girl with an intellectual disability had alleged that whilst at a wake she had been grabbed by three teenage boys who took her to a man, MC, waiting in the garden of a deserted building, who then raped her. Two other men were also present. During the police investigation the six men involved claimed the girl had consented to the intercourse. The prosecutor accepted this explanation, indicting MC only for sexual intercourse with a minor. The Court held that the authorities had put undue emphasis on the lack of proof that the girl had shown resistance during the incident. The prosecutors had based their conclusions on the statements given by the alleged rapists along with the fact that the girl’s body did not show any signs of violence and she had not called for help. The Romanian authorities had failed to give particular attention to IC’s intellectual disability, in light of which her ‘consent’ to the acts should have been analysed.
- Biao v Denmark – The Court held in this case that Danish legislation on family reunion is discriminatory, finding a violation of Article 14 in conjunction with Article 8 (right to respect for private and family life). The applicant was a naturalised Danish citizen of Togolese origin who complained that he and his Ghanaian wife could not settle in Denmark. The Danish authorities had refused to grant them family reunion on the basis that they did not fulfil the “attachment” requirement that they did not have stronger ties with another country – Ghana, in this case. They complained that an amendment to the legislation which lifted the “attachment requirement” for those who had held Danish citizenship for at least 28 years resulted in difference in treatment between those born Danish nationals and those who had acquired Danish citizenship later in life. The Court held that this rule favoured Danish nationals of Danish ethnic origin, and placed those who had acquired Danish citizenship later in life at a disadvantage.