Remember Laura Norder? A perennial favourite of Tory conferences – with Home Secretaries vowing to support the police and be tough on criminals. Even Blair joined in with his “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” slogan. That was then. Now it is the ECHR, lefty lawyers and other bleeding heart liberals in the government’s sights for, it is said, undermining the fight for justice and the rights of true born Britons to sleep easy in their beds. (This – or something like it – will be the template for Braverman’s speeches as Home Secretary.) Even Sunak has joined in with desperate attacks, not just on lefty lawyers but activist ones.
The Tories have been in power for 12 years now. So the justice and police system should be in good shape, no? Think again. 6 police forces are in special measures: the Met, Greater Manchester, Cleveland, Gloucestershire, Staffordshire and Wiltshire. The endless reports on their failings and that of other forces would stock a growing library. The number of police officers has fallen by 21,000 since 2010. Even the SFO is now accumulating reports about its own inadequacies leading to the abandonment of serious cases.
What about criminal justice? The justice budget has fallen by 25% since 2010. Legal Aid pay rates are a quarter lower than in 2006. CPS staff have fallen by 25%; court staff by 20%. 43% of all court buildings have been closed or sold off. Since 2018 judges have been told to reduce the days they sit. This led to a 25% increase in the trial backlog within 15 months. The average time for a rape case to go to trial from arrest is now four and a half years (up from three and a half in 2014). If you are a victim of fraud the chances of the police investigating let alone the fraudster being tried are vanishingly small. 40% of criminal barristers have left the profession, largely because pay rates are so poor that the average pay for junior barristers after 3 years is £12,200. They’d be better off working at a real bar. If there is no-one to prosecute or defend, it does not matter how many slogans politicians chant or laws they pass, many offences have been effectively decriminalised. An independent review delayed since 2018 last year recommended an increase of 15% in pay rates as the minimum necessary. What is being promised instead is a 6% increase starting this autumn but only paid once cases are concluded ie some time in 2024 at the earliest. Meanwhile according to a Citibank report, inflation is set to reach 18% next January. Criminal barristers go on indefinite strike from September 5th. The current Justice Secretary has refused to meet their representatives.
Will a new PM who was once Justice Secretary bring an improvement? Truss’s 11 months in that office were distinguished by her failure to understand or implement her primary constitutional duty to defend the judiciary’s independence, her misunderstanding of reforms to the cross-examination of vulnerable victims in rape trials (a misunderstanding which had to be corrected by others) and seeking to raise probate fees unlawfully. A politician who does not understand the law and ignores advice from those who do is unlikely to improve matters
Special pleading by lawyers will be the inevitable criticism. But all these complaints – lack of funding, effective cuts in pay, a lack of resources, demonisation of those raising concerns, a refusal to implement recommendations, even to meet – could be made, justifiably, by many others: medical professionals, for instance, or teachers or social care workers or many others providing vital services. Charities try to help but even they are affected. The Isle of Wight’s only law centre is closing this month. Anyone wanting legal advice on the island who cannot pay for it themselves will have to travel to Swindon. It is only the latest in what has been described as death by a thousand cuts. Law centres do vital work, much like food banks. Decades ago I volunteered at the North Kensington Law Centre helping those suffering in poor housing, long before Notting Hill became fashionable. It helped the victims of the Clanricarde Gardens fire in 1981 when people trapped in sub-standard housing poorly & cheaply converted to bedsits died. 36 years later it has been helping the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire, victims of the same indifference to the human consequences of austerity, deregulation and disregard for legal requirements.
Too many of our public services are being held together on the back of the hard graft and goodwill of those who feel a moral obligation towards those they are helping, those who go beyond their contracted hours and duties, those who try and do their best for those needing their help, because they value the service, because they realise its importance, because they do not want to turn away from those in trouble. Are they fools for doing so?
It is not simply how they are treated. It is realising that others are treated very much better, without any obvious justification for this disparity. The average UK CEO is now paid 109 times what the the average British worker is. It was 79 times higher barely 2 years ago. Have CEOs really been grafting so much harder these last two years to deserve such rewards?
Criminal justice is only one of these basic functions of the state, one whose absence causes harm to many. Whether through malice or negligence, government has for years degraded and cut back such vital services, has cheese pared and under-invested, has refused to build up resilience and the ability to cope when shocks happen. Those shocks are here now: Brexit, a pandemic, a war, energy prices, inflation. But never mind those: according to Ms Truss at a Cheltenham leadership hustings, an exercise in focusing on baubles for the few rather than the fundamentals for the many, all that’s needed is “challenge those who try to talk our country down” and “a bit more respect for ourselves and our values”. Not so much the power of positive thinking as the delusion of magical thinking. When will reality bite?