Criminal justice in jeopardy – are funding cutbacks crippling the system?
The fate of the UK’s once highly-regarded criminal justice system appears to hang in the balance, threatened by unprecedented levels of cutbacks and years of under-resourcing. We need to see incremental improvements rather than the constant paring-down that is jeopardising justice for the innocent and dissuading competent lawyers from choosing criminal law as a career path. This year has seen a spate of rape allegations collapse because of police and Crown Prosecution Service failures to disclose, until extreme pressure was exerted, information in their possession that supported the accused’s defence. Whether the evidence was deliberately withheld or simply not handled correctly due to a lack of resources, the result was the same – people were left with accusations of serious offences hanging over them for many months and the only thing that stood between innocent people and lengthy imprisonment was a high-quality legal defence team.
The media has had much to say about the fate of a burglar in Kent who was stabbed by the owner of the house he chose to burgle. The home-owner, Richard Osborn-Brooks, was arrested on suspicion of murder and would have had access to a duty solicitor at the police station to advise him and to argue his case, with the result that he was released without charge and without delay. Indeed, the Law Society considers that duty solicitors play a vital role in protecting suspects from inappropriate treatment and shielding the police from false allegations of misconduct.
Provision for duty solicitors was made by the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, which defined the role in response to incidents of serious abuse that had led to wrongful convictions and a series of successful high-profile appeals. However, fewer and fewer young solicitors see working in criminal law as a viable career as a combination of limited pay prospects and poor conditions means criminal law is simply not an attractive option for solicitors – these are not ‘fat cat’ lawyers but skilled professionals who are there to act on our behalf and protect us when things go wrong.
Our criminal justice system is creaking, and it seems to me that it is close to collapse. In the not-too-distant future, will another Richard Osbourn-Brooks have to cope without a state-funded solicitor to turn to for advice?
Ian Oliver. Partner.General, George Ide, News