Prison Reform and Court Fees

Whilst everyone is an expert on crime and punishment (just as they are on education and healthcare) it is very frustrating to listen to Mr Gove and then Mr Cameron announce reform to the prison system because the current system isn’t working, because it was successive Governments (but mainly the Conservative Liberal Democrats and now the Conservatives) but especially Mr Grayling (the former Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice) who cut the prison service and probation and court service and legal aid.

Having worked as a Solicitor since 1992 it is my clear view that victims of crime can only receive Justice if the Justice system is properly funded. The image of prisons being cushy hotels where X-box’s and Sky Sports and other luxuries make being incarcerated a real joy is wrong. Prisons are a nightmare. I have visited HMP Northumberland and been told by staff that the daily regime involves 23 hour lock-up and the abuse of Spice by prisoners. Spice is a legal high that is freely available in prison. There are not enough prison officers employed to make prison work.

The Government privatised the community based punishment regime-apparently on the basis that if the scheme operators were successful then they’d get paid. Goodness knows how that is going.

Prisoners need access to courses to address issues to do with literacy. They need to attend courses to consider offending and how to stop offending and to consider why they ought to stop offending. They need to learn empathy. This needs to be funded.

There needs to be more probation officers so reports can be delivered to courts much more quickly. Courts need to be allowed more sitting days so cases can be dealt with much more quickly. The Courts Service needs to be resourced properly.

Rehabilitation of offenders can work if it is funded and managed properly.

As for Court and Tribunal fees, the Government appears to believe that the Justice system is something it owns and to which people can gain access if they have the correct amount of cash. Having created No Win-No Fee successive Governments have complained when cases are brought to Court. The Association of British Insurers whinges about the number of cases brought for road traffic related claims and promises to lower insurance premiums when, in fact, premiums have gone up. Tribunal fees were introduced to stop people playing the system in Employment Tribunals. Legal aid was removed for DWP related claims.

The Justice system does not belong to the Government. It belongs to all citizens. All citizens should be able to access it and obtain proper advice and representation. It is the Government’s responsibility to ensure that this is facilitated. It is not the Government’s job to build barriers to Justice or to protect the interests of a lobby group such as ABI.

In Crown Court cases a successful defendant who has had to fund his own defence and who has been acquitted is not fully remunerated. Why should someone be out of pocket when the State, through its agents the Police and Crown Prosecution Service, fails to convict?

Today the Justice Committee is reviewing with lawyers and Ministers the fees imposed to taking a case to Court or to a Tribunal. I have no doubt the Minister will say that the fees are necessary to stop fallacious claims and that it is right that the Tribunal and Court system should not be a burden on taxpayers. The best way to stop fallacious claims is to allow a claimant access to proper legal advice and for Court or Tribunal to award costs against a loser.

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