It has emerged that the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, is intending to make a vicarious grab for power on behalf of the Office which he currently holds. Mr Johnson is seeking to take control of the courts and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in London, making them accountable to the Mayor.
The CPS currently reports to the Attorney General, whilst the courts report to the Ministry of Justice. The new proposals would make both, along with the Metropolitan Police which is already overseen by the Mayor, accountable to one Office, which would enable the correlation of priorities and objectives across all three pillars of the criminal justice system.
Comparisons have been drawn between the plans for London and the system which operates in New York, where the Mayor holds those responsible for investigating, arrests, charging, prosecuting, and sentencing to account.
Aside from London, Manchester has also indicated its approval and intention to adopt a criminal justice system devolved from Whitehall, should the plans be put into practice.
Johnson’s Deputy Mayor for Policing, Stephen Greenhalgh, believes that devolution would allow a greater focus on the reduction of recidivism. Focused on the idea of greater collaboration and efficiency he claims that different departments within the criminal justice system play “pass the parcel” when it comes to problem solving, and that savings could be made by “co-locating them in the same buildings, working off the same IT systems, with the same priorities.”
He went on to suggest that this could be a necessary shift in the modernisation of the criminal justice system, claiming it to be stuck in the past, stating:
“It is a 19th-century construct with 19th-century technology which needs to move into the 21st century.”
The ongoing budget cuts being made to criminal justice departments will almost certainly result in an imperative for structural change. From my own experiences of observing the day to day functioning of the courts, there is an astonishing amount of time and resources wasted throughout each day, which is public money rendered ineffective through inefficiency. It is therefore perfectly understandable that the Government is trying to reduce the cost of justice, but it has not targeted the inefficiency within the system, it has targeted those who use and need its protection, and work within its practice, and as such has been rightly criticised.
The Police and Crime Commissioner for Greater Manchester, Tony Lloyd has said that:
“It makes sense to explore the possibility of bringing local Crown Prosecution Service and court services under the oversight of police and crime commissioners, establishing transparency and public accountability throughout the entire criminal justice system.
“Not only will this deliver savings for the public purse, but it will mean a better service for victims of crime – for too long ignored – witnesses and the local community.”
Whilst Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police, Sir Peter Fahy, said:
“It could create incentives for agencies to work together, to put fewer people in prison and keep more money to invest in the community through more preventative activity.”
With further austerity and a potential further 34,000 police officers set to be cut, the streamlining of services is perhaps a sensible way in which to minimise the impact such measures will have on front-line services, and in-turn provide savings which are not directly imposed by budget cuts.
Furthermore Greenhalgh argues that the criminal justice system is unaccountable to the people it serves. He claims that:
“The criminal justice system should be held to account as the Met is in London, otherwise these are unaccountable agencies not answering to the people of London.”
This is an interesting point with regard to the democratic accountability of justice and the corresponding constitutional principle of the separation of powers. It is true that the separation of the executive and the judiciary is more prominent, and arguably of greater importance in the higher courts, however the judiciary in the lower courts still maintain independence from the executive.
If the courts and the judiciary in terms of their sentencing decisions were to be held accountable to the Major, an elected member of the executive, then the judiciary arguably loses its independence. It is more directly accountable to the people, but less independent of the executive.
Nolan LJ once remarked:
“The proper constitutional relationship of the executive with the courts is that the courts will respect all acts of the executive within its lawful province, and that the executive will respect all decisions of the courts as to what its lawful province is.” (M v Home Office  QB 270 at 314)
Direct political interference with the outcomes of sentencing, and the functioning of the courts, in terms of direct accountability, should be introduced with great caution. Very few politicians have been elected in recent years for their progressive and liberal criminal justice policies, and such a move may yield the opposite outcome to that which has been expounded by its advocates.
The Law Society has spoken out against the proposals, citing concerns about the independence of prosecutors’ decision making, and the magistrates’ and judges’ sentencing decisions not being influenced by political interference.
A spokesperson said:
“Any proposals would need to ensure that this was protected…Consistency in the criminal justice system is important. It would be problematic if there were a ‘postcode lottery’ for justice. It’s not acceptable for people to be treated differently for the same offence in different parts of the country.”
Consistency is crucial to the fair application of the law; consistency of response, and consistency of punishment must be exercised in direct response to the consistency with which all people are bound by the laws of the country in which they reside.
In summary, the ambition of a more efficient, better co-ordinated, and more effective criminal justice system is an aspiration worthy of debate. That it should be achieved through the political oversight of disparate Mayoral offices, each setting their own agenda, and blurring the distinction between political and judicial discretion is quite possibly not the most promising solution.