JHA | Secret Barrister: The Criminal Justice System under Scrutiny

Secret Barrister: The Criminal Justice System under Scrutiny

April 30, 2018

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The Secret Barrister’s much awaited book, ‘Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken’, is finally out. By any standards, it provides a damning account of English criminal justice. In the book, legal aid cuts and overworked, poorly paid lawyers make for a toxic combination, which falls considerably short of the ‘world-class justice system’ that the Ministry of Justice is seeking to deliver.

The Secret Barrister’s experience certainly resonates, and we need to ask what can be done to make things better. Tellingly, Victim Support, a leading independent charity, states that ‘[t]he legal system in England and Wales has been around for a long time and is widely respected. But it’s also complicated — particularly if you’ve never come into contact with it before’.

What precisely is so complicated about the justice system? Two key aspects emerge – transparency and access – and it seems both require significant improvement. According to the Centre for Criminal Appeals (CCA), a lack of transparency negatively impacts the accountability of the system and necessitates further reforms. Strikingly, the CCA observes that violations of disclosure rules by the police are occurring in 40.7% of cases, and trial transcripts are prohibitively expensive, which means that defendants cannot afford to appeal. On access, Liberty’s recent evidence to the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights quotes Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, the then Lord Chief Justice, who wrote in his 2015 annual report to Parliament that ‘our justice system has become unaffordable to most’. Liberty’s evidence further notes that ‘only 39% of the general public believe the justice system works well for citizens and only 17% believe it’s easy for people on low incomes to access justice. The [legal aid] cuts have been criticised by leading human rights organisations, the Trades Union Congress, the National Audit Office, senior judges and parliamentary select committees’.

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