The media and public are quick to criticise seemingly light sentences, but appear increasingly reluctant to back any measures designed to improve justice at the cost of time and money. The reason for this is likely to be that the centralised systems of government and media repeat the same stories, leaving the public with a narrowed perception of the law. According to Rodney Warren, the outgoing director of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association (CLSA), the situation is becoming so bad that the value of justice in the has deteriorated.
What Price Justice?
Justice is an odd concept. Based on the rule of law, justice encompasses aspects of retribution, remedy and rehabilitation. It aims to be restorative, but in practice it can usually only deliver a form of penalty, compensation and blueprint for progression. No criminal act can be undone, but the effects of some can be stopped or reversed, as in many cases of fraud or theft.
In other types of crime, justice is almost entirely about making the wrongdoer pay for his actions. Perhaps this is where the problem lies. A murder cannot be unpicked from time, but the murderer can be made to serve time in prison. If sentencing is light, however, few would consider justice to have been served. The public demands harsh, lengthy sentences for the most heinous of crimes, but government ministers tend to want the opposite. Long sentences are a drain on the public purse.
Mr Warren, who plans to retire after spending ten years as the director of the CLSA, is concerned that the intention to speed up judicial proceedings and the ‘march of managerialism’ have conspired to erode the value of justice in the public’s eye. It is feared that justice is not sufficiently respected in the country; moreover, to a certain extent at least, it is no longer the main objective in many criminal cases.
One reason for the apparent deterioration of justice in England and Wales is that legal aid is not respected by government. In recent forms, the Coalition announced reforms that would cut the legal aid bill by a substantial amount. Only available to certain types of claimant, legal aid has been removed entirely for people who wish to pursue clinical negligence claims and other civil law cases.
Legal aid is also an issue in the criminal law. Mr Warren argues that the cost of preserving the fundamental rights of suspects has to be balanced against the savings that are generated by speedy convictions. If the focus of criminal proceedings is one of cost, however, justice necessarily takes a back seat. True justice, therefore, can only be ensured if issues of cost are discounted entirely. That is never going to happen.
Mr Warren also made the point that the Legal Services Commission (LSC) had fallen victim to increased red tape in recent years. A more managerial approach to criminal law was causing additional problems that again shifted the focus of cases away from justice. Unfortunately, the system is unlikely to change while austerity measures are imposed across the country; indeed, the situation is likely to worsen as even greater emphasis is placed on cost-cutting measures.
This post was written on behalf of Hague Lambert.