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A letter to the new Lord Chancellor

Penelope Gibbs
16 Jul 2016

Dear Liz,

Welcome to your new role. You are faced with a number of pressing issues and may welcome some ideas on reform.  Both the courts and the prisons are on the brink of chaos.  Birmingham prisoners staged a protest only last week, and prisoner deaths are rising steeply.  A prison officer was burnt and scalded when a teenage prisoner “spilt” boiling water on him at Cookham Wood. Prison officers are not allowed to strike, but they are staging unofficial walkouts.

The criminal courts are muddling along but muddle is the word.  Julian Young, a solicitor for Tuckers, blogged the other day about the state of Highbury Corner Magistrates’ Court: “There are insufficient qualified prosecutors, insufficient facilities for charging phones and lap tops, the expensive and much-vaunted court wifi frequently breaks down or is patchy, cells are almost inaccessible, and defence lawyer’s rooms are cramped, and with glass between the client and the lawyer so that forms and documents cannot be signed, photocopiers are not available to defence lawyers – the list is almost endless”.  Things are not better in the higher courts. Workload in the Court of Appeal has increased 59% and delays are increasing.  In its annual report HMCTS admitted that “the level of service … at a court or tribunal is at best inconsistent and, at worst, frustrating”.  Your predecessor allocated £700 million capital spend for modernising the courts and digitising processes, but these changes will take years to fully come on stream.

Meanwhile what could you do to address the chaos while the Ministry of Justice is subject to stringent cuts?  The most effective solution may be to shrink the criminal justice system.  While prisoner numbers are at 85,000 and predicted to rise, you will be hard put to improve conditions.  Michael Gove and his ministers frequently said that sentencing was up to judges, and implied they could not control it but, in his latter months, minister Dominic Raab and policy makers were considering sentencing reform.

It will be difficult for you to curb sentence inflation, and even more challenging to make sentences less punitive.  But as Lord Phillips pointed out in the House of Lords only last week, “sentences have been greatly ratcheted up over my lifetime. They are much longer than is necessary to achieve the objects of deterrence, punishment and rehabilitation”.  We now have the longest prison sentences in Western Europe, and prosecute for relatively minor crimes which would be more cheaply and effectively dealt with outside court.  Operation Turning Point, designed by former Chief Constable Peter Neyroud, is a randomised controlled trial comparing results for court based prosecution against a diversionary programme.  The results are promising and this approach would save thousands, if not millions, in court costs.  Whether you reduce sentences, or take cases out of court, it is only by shrinking the system that you will be able to make the current budget stretch.  As it is, prison is a dead end, and community sentences are so poorly resourced that they risk being just a tick box exercise, which have no real effect on desistance.

Michael Gove reduced some parts of the justice system (including, unfortunately, employment tribunals) but the criminal justice system still sucks in far too many people. Our outdated criminal justice system is holding our country back. We need to reform the system to allow us all to move forward.

All the best in getting to grips with the system.  I hope to meet you soon.

Penelope Gibbs

Director, Transform Justice