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Lord Chancellor: The justice system is failing the public

If he is serious about creating a 'one nation' justice system, we expect him to listen to us, says LCCSA president Jonathan Black

23 June 2015

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The new Lord Chancellor, Michael Gove, is to use his first public speech to call for urgent reform to the justice system.

In a speech to be delivered this morning at the Legatum Institute, Gove is expected to say that the justice system is failing those without financial means. Only the wealthy get the 'gold standard' of British justice, he is to add.

Gove is expected to call for greater investment and reform in the courts to improve the criminal justice system. The Lord Chancellor will give his backing to the work already contributed by the Lord Chief Justice and Sir Brian Leveson.

Excerpts from the Lord Chancellor's speech given in advance of the event are below:

'Even as we can - collectively - take pride in the fact that our traditions of liberty are generating future prosperity, we must also acknowledge that there is a need to do much more. Despite our deserved global reputation for legal services, not every element of our justice system is world-beating. While those with money can secure the finest legal provision in the world, the reality in our courts for many of our citizens is that the justice system is failing them. Badly.

'There are two nations in our justice system at present. On the one hand, the wealthy, international class who can choose to settle cases in London with the gold standard of British justice. And then everyone else, who has to put up with a creaking, outdated system to see justice done in their own lives. The people who are let down most badly by our justice system are those who must take part in it through no fault or desire of their own: victims and witnesses of crime, and children who have been neglected.

'I have seen barristers struggle to explain why a young woman who had the courage to press a rape charge should have had to wait nearly two years before her case was heard. Reporting these offences in the first place must be a traumatic experience - made worse still by having to relive it in court two years later. I have watched as judges question advocates about the most basic procedural preliminaries in what should be straightforward cases and find that no-one in court can provide satisfactory answers. I have heard too many accounts of cases derailed by the late arrival of prisoners, broken video links or missing paperwork. I have seen both prosecution and defence barristers in a case that touched on an individual's most precious rights acknowledge that each had only received the massive bundles in front of them hours before and - through no fault of their own - were very far from being able to make the best case possible.

'The waste and inefficiency inherent in such a system are obvious. But perhaps even more unforgivable is the human cost. It is the poorest in our society who are disproportionately the victims of crime, and who find themselves at the mercy of this creaking and dysfunctional system. Women who have the bravery to report domestic violence, assault and rape. Our neighbours who live in those parts of our cities scarred by drug abuse, gangs and people trafficking. These are the people who suffer twice - at the hands of criminals and as a result of our current criminal justice system.

'We urgently need to reform our criminal courts. We need to make sure prosecutions are brought more efficiently, unnecessary procedures are stripped out, information is exchanged by email or conference call, rather than in a series of hearings, and evidence is served in a timely and effective way. Then we can make sure that more time can be spent on ensuring the court hears high quality advocacy rather than excuses for failure.

'The case for reform is overwhelming. Which should not surprise us, because it is made most powerfully and clearly by the judiciary themselves. The Lord Chief Justice and his colleagues who provide leadership to our justice system are all convinced of, and convincing on, the case for reform. They have commissioned work which makes the case for quite radical change. Should anyone doubt the need for dramatic steps, Sir Brian Leveson's report on the need for change in our criminal justice system makes the case compellingly. He argues with great authority and makes a series of wise recommendations. They need to be implemented with all speed.

'The rule of law is the most precious asset of any civilised society. It is the rule of law which protects the weak from the assault of the strong; which safeguards the private property on which all prosperity depends; which makes sure that when those who hold power abuse it, they can be checked; which protects family life and personal relations from coercion and aggression; which underpins the free speech on which all progress - scientific and cultural - depends; and which guarantees the essential liberty that allows us all as individuals to flourish.'

Incompatible ideology

Responding to the speech, the president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors' Association (LCCSA), Jonathan Black, said: 'We welcome a Lord Chancellor who is willing to recognise our broken justice system, one where there are two tiers of justice, one for the rich and one for the poor; yet they are choice words and meaningless without proper safeguards in place to ensure access to justice.

'[It is] the falsely accused and the poor who really do face the prospect of a two-tier justice system under the new contracts that Mr Gove is determined to implement. If he is serious about creating a "one nation" justice system, we expect him to listen to the solicitors at the coal face who urge him to stop and think before pursing his predecessor's program.

'The ship has left the harbour he tells us as seeks to pursue a policy which, despite the warnings, will sail straight into the iceberg. When defence advocates are not prepared because the "pile 'em high sell 'em cheap" justice warehouses that will prevail fail to prepare cases due to lack of resources, only then he will realise that a "one nation" justice system is incompatible with the ideological policies being pursued.

'It is not just defendants but victims that will suffer as a result of poor representation of those accused of crimes. The Lord Chancellor will do no worse than to start by standing opposite the Old Bailey and reading that which is inscribed in the masonry "defend the children of the poor punish the wrongdoer", before engaging meaningfully with those of us working at the coalface of the justice system.'