It has been a week to forget for Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling. He has been forced to defend the rising number of deaths in custody, and in fact mount a defence of his stewardship of the entire prison system.
Yet to make matters far worse, he has been embarrassed by a High Court ruling which states that the consultation process for cutting the criminal legal aid budget by £220 million was so unfair it was illegal.
The Prison System
The prison system is coming to terms with the necessity of operating with a much lower budget than was the case a few years ago. A difficult endeavour considering that many would argue the initial budget was insufficient to deliver the number and quality of services demanded. Yet in spite of this the Government is preparing to employ 1,600 new prison officers to assist with a current staff shortage in the south-east.
The link between funding cuts and an increase of self-inflicted deaths within the prison population has been drawn, presumably with an assertion that there is too few staff to properly manage and protect the prisoners from harming each other or themselves. However, there appears to be no pattern to the deaths, and no concrete conclusions can be drawn without thorough investigation, though it is a cause for concern.
In his defence of the current regime Grayling claims that:
“[O]ur system is less overcrowded than it has been in a decade. Assault rates are lower than five years ago. We are bringing new employers into prison to provide work, in fields ranging from recycling to electrical-assembly to fashion. The number of hours of work in our prisons is rising steadily. So too are the numbers of prisoners studying for a qualification – and in youth-detention facilities we are doubling the amount of education done each week.”
These are valid points, however comparing the prison population to that of a decade ago and congratulating oneself on it having reduced, is hardly cause for great celebration given that the prison population was far beyond capacity and its reduction was but a necessity. The prison population was far too high; it is still far too high.
If the Government were serious about reducing the national expenditure on prisons then they would amend criminal policy to reserve prison for those who pose a threat to the public. As has often been recommended by lobby groups, they could abolish short prison sentences, which would ease the strain on the system and allow for an alternative sanction which may in some way benefit, or at least have time to benefit the offender, and provide a step in the direction of rehabilitation.
On this note Chris Grayling begins his defence of the prison system with the words “[p]rison is not meant to be comfortable. It’s not meant to be somewhere anyone would ever want to go back to.” This is true but nor should it be uninhabitable, and the deterrent nature of prison life fails to appreciate the resilience of the human spirit.
I am not an expert, but I suspect that incarceration ranks among those circumstances to which one adapts, and for the most part endures until release. I also suspect that as with many things the more time spent, either through a continuous period of time or separate sentences, its horror subsides as it becomes more normal. If it is the Government’s overriding objective to scare people straight through the terror of prison life, I would certainly argue that this is likely to be less effective than tackling the root causes of those people’s offending behaviour, particularly if they are not a danger to the public.
In response to the lack of rehabilitation, it would be remiss of me not to mention that the introduction of a more comprehensive ‘through the gate’ support system is being introduced to improve the resettlement and mentoring of offenders once they have been released from prison.
Legal Aid Cuts
Grayling has also been ever so slightly humiliated by a High Court ruling which states that the consultation process on cutting £220 million from the criminal legal aid budget was “so unfair as to amount to illegality”.
Mr Justice Burnett ruled that the Ministry of Justice refused to allow those engaged in the consultation process to comment on reports by the accountants KPMG and Otterburn, which provided the foundation for deciding how many contracts for criminal advisory work would be available to solicitors' firms. This meant that those involved were unable to challenge the assumptions made by the Ministry of Justice in developing its plans.
Just over a year ago, on this very site, I warned about the dangers of the Government’s approach in trying to pass laws through secondary legislation without proper democratic scrutiny, it would now appear that these attempts went further than was initially thought.
The Criminal Law Solicitors' Association (CLSA) and the London Criminal Courts Solicitors' Association, which brought the judicial review challenge, said they would seek a royal commission into funding for access to justice. They claim that the Ministry of Justice’s refusal to supply the documents when requested meant that the number of firms able to apply for duty contracts was highly restricted.
The Chairman of the CLSA said in response:
“[T]his is a damming indictment of the Lord Chancellor, Chris Grayling. The head of our world-renowned justice system must act fairly, instead he has attempted to enact a plan that is manifestly unfair. Limiting access to justice and shredding the treasured principle of equality before the law…
At a time when constitutional change is in the air, the right of citizens to defend themselves against state-funded prosecutions is not something that should be manipulated in a political way, but investigated impartially to appropriate savings and reforms that are sustainable and in the public interest.”
In spite of this, the challenge was not entirely successful; the reduction in fees chargeable by solicitors imposed by the Government was upheld by the High Court.
One could argue that the lesson to be learned from this is that if the Government want a robust and fair justice system then they had better be prepared to pay for it, or the problems will continue to mount as Chris Grayling has found this past week.