It was reported in the Times today that Michael Gove is considering imposing a “levy” on top solicitors’ firms to raise money if he abandons the criminal courts charge. The charge was predicted to bring in £65-90 million a year and the Treasury wants that sum to be collected somehow. Its not difficult to feel sorry for the Ministry of Justice. There is no other department subject to such swingeing cuts which has had to take the full impact of them itself, without actually being able to control how money is spent. The Department for Communities and Local Government has been savagely cut, but it has simply handed the cuts on to local government. The Ministry of Justice has fixed costs – courts, probation, prisons – and cannot control the flow into those institutions. For example, Crown Courts have been overwhelmed with historic sex cases. The court service didn’t predict them but can’t turn them away for lack of resources.
The results of the Treasury spending review are likely to be announced in around a month and tough decisions will need to be made. A recent Panorama programme suggested Michael Gove is keen to follow the example of the USA. There the prison population has recently started going down for the first time in decades. The Lord Chancellor visited a Texas problem solving court dealing with drug addicted offenders, and innovative rehabilitation programmes in prison. – both great developments, but perhaps not the most significant factors in the reducing prison population. In USA they have boldly brought in significant reforms to sentencing and parole in order to reduce or just stabilise prison numbers. The driver there is money too – they simply can’t afford to build more prisons.
The politics of sentencing reform are always difficult, but Gove could save a lot by reducing prison numbers and reducing the number of court cases in England and Wales. Follow the Howard League’s tweets and you despair of a justice system which spends so much processing relatively minor offences – a teenager begging in the street, a woman who stole socks, a man who stole chocolate. All these offences could be taken out of court, saving millions. No-one should turn a blind eye to these crimes, but they would be much better dealt with through out of court disposals or, better, restorative justice. So I do want Michael Gove to scrap the criminal courts charge, but I’m not at all sure he needs to go cap in hand to the Magic Circle in order to balance the books.