Wednesday, 30 June 2010

The Government's Vision for Reform - a look at Kenneth Clarke's speech

The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Kenneth Clarke QC) has made a speech at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies.  It is a far-ranging speech set against the background of financial savings which the coalition government argue are essential.  The full speech is available on the Ministry of Justice website - see Speech 30th June.  In essence, the speech sets out the key policy principles which will guide the government's justice agenda.  Here is a necessarily brief summary of the key points:

  • The economic crisis - Savings have to be made without damaging public services - the need is to reconcile drastic and necessary cuts with positive policy making.
  • Priorities - to punish offenders, protect the public and provide access to justice
  • Courts - there is a large and historic estate of underused buildings and a lot of them are not fit for purpose in a modern legal system - a reduction in the number of courts had already been announced
  • Trials - not all minor, non-contentious cases need to be heard in a traditional court setting and new methods of delivering justice will be sought including the use of technology and "alternative dispute resolution".  This will not mean "all-singing, all-dancing IT schemes".
  • Legal Aid - major changes required - the UK spends more on legal aid than almost anywhere else in the world - £38 per head of population.  1% of criminal cases consumes 50% of the Crown Court legal aid budget.  Legal Aid will be subjected to a fundamental reassessment followed by consultation in the autumn.
  • Family cases - the traditional adversarial process is not necessarily best for parties and can make disputes worse.  There is a review underway chaired by David Norgrove to search for alternative ways of handling disputes over children.
  • Punishment and Protection - the prison population exceeds 85,000.  Sentencing has to be based not on cost but on principles of "retribution, reflection of public anger and the effective prevention of further crime".  Prison is expensive - on average £38,000 per year.  Prison is necessary for some offenders but does it always produce better results for the public?  The government intends to aim for "intelligent sentencing" to achieve better value for money and the effective protection wanted by people.  Short term sentencing - it was virtually impossible to do anything productive with such offenders.  Prisons should become not only places of punishment but also of education, hard work and change.  Further, community sentences must be rigorously enforced and seek to get offenders off drugs and alcohol and into employment.  The speech also envisaged greater use of the voluntary and private sectors in getting offenders away from the revolving door of crime and prison.
  • Sentencing - a clear, coherent sentencing framework was required - the current framework being "over complicated, confusing and disingenuous".  Announced sentences often bear no resemblance to the time actually served in prison.  Clear indication is lacking as to the actual penalty imposed.  The government plans to look at the framework for adult and young offenders as well as the full range of penalties available in the criminal justice system.  One idea which will be examined is minimum/maximum sentencing.  It is also planned to look at community sentencing and the views of the judiciary and JPs will be sought as to what is effective.
  • Any money?  - There will not be vast amounts of money to invest into non-custodial sentences.
Clearly, much of the detail remains to be seen and there is a recognition that there may be some opportunities to improve some matters.  Many will see this speech as a finance-driven policy which will degrade the standards of justice further - they may be proved right.  However, there are possibilities to cut out waste and to target resources better but it is highly unlikely that any money saved will be redirected into the justice system.

The previous government had become very fond of "rolling out" poorly considered initiatives and all of them involved significant costs.  Perhaps this is one Ministry of Justice process which will now come to a timely and welcome end?  Sentencing was brought within a coherent policy by the Criminal Justice Act 1991 but there has been continual tinkering with the system and it is that which has led to over-complication - e.g. Indeterminate Sentencing accounting for 1 in 15 of those in prison.  It is essential to note that alternatives to imprisonment will cost money and resources of manpower.  The ideas for involving the voluntary sector have yet to be spelt out but offenders cannot be properly managed without trained and experienced personnel.  As things stand, the Probation Service is already overloaded.  Great care will therefore be needed if serious damage to law and order is to be avoided.

Addendum 5th July:   "False economy in proposal to cut the number of courts" - The Guardian 5th July.

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