On the 6th February 2014 Simon Hughes, the newly appointed Justice Minister and former Deputy Party Leader of the Liberal Democrats, pledged to make courts more welcoming places, and provide a more distinctive Liberal Democrat presence at the Ministry of Justice.
Such a suggestion may draw immediate criticism brought on by the misapprehension that Simon Hughes’ intention is to soften the impact on those taken to court to be tried, this is however not the case. His vision is aimed at those who have to attend court without the vehement encouragement of the Police Service. Furthermore one can only infer that Simon Hughes has criminal courts primarily in his mind when making his comments, thus for the purpose of this piece his comments will be looked at solely in how they may apply to the criminal courts.
It is the Justice Minister’s intention to make the courts more user friendly, by user one can infer that victims and witnesses is what are meant. There has long been criticism levelled at the way in which the court system treats victims and witnesses, and anything which can be done to improve the experience of those upon whom an adversarial system relies, whether it be better information or support, should be supported and implemented, so long as it does not impact on court room procedure or contradict the current laws of evidence.
Some of the Justice Minister’s comments were however, far more problematic. The first of these being that there will be an attempt to help people feel as though they “own” the courts. To refer to the courts in terms of ownership is far from helpful, and raises questions of increasing complexity which I fear Simon Hughes has no intention of tackling.
The courts are funded by the Government, thus they are funded by the taxpayer, and therefore they can be loosely argued to be ‘owned’ by the public. In practice an indirect financial contribution does not grant ‘ownership’ in any real sense.
This quote from Simon Hughes further confuses the issue:
“People need to own the courts as places that are on the side of people as well as the justice system.”
At what point does one ‘own’ the courts? If the public ‘own’ the courts then is that ‘ownership’ lost once one is accused of a crime? Does ‘ownership’ only apply to law abiding members of the public? Going a step further, is ‘ownership’ suspended at the point of accusation and rescinded completely upon conviction? To speak of the ‘ownership’ of the courts beyond their very bricks is an absolute nonsense.
The courts are a symbolic and ceremonial place at which those accused of breaking the law are judged, and where appropriate, censured and sentenced to punishment. In order for a court to fulfil this role, and provide justice, it must remain impartial. To suggest that people, more specifically victims and witnesses, ‘own’ the courts implies control over it, and that the court is there to fulfil their aims.
The second part of that quote; that people should feel as though courts are on their side as well as the justice system, can be read two ways: that the courts are on the side of the justice system and not the people; or that both the courts and the justice system should be on the side of the people. The first interpretation appears most likely given the manner in which it was phrased.
The justice system is an impartial system which serves the public interest by investigating crime, putting those accused before either a Magistrate or a jury in order to determine their guilt based on evidence, followed by a variety of punishment and rehabilitation schemes, as appropriate. The courts are not ‘on the side’ of the justice system, the courts are an integral part of the justice system.
By creating a distinction between the interests of the public and the interests of the justice system, which are presumably both ‘justice’, Simon Hughes is confusing the means with the intention of the system. Victims and witnesses should be better treated, but to imply that their poor treatment is because the courts are not on their side is misleading. Rather the strain placed on a victim or witness is not given enough account by those who work in a ‘conveyor belt’ court system and as such greater consideration should be given to their contribution in achieving justice as part of the system.
On a related point, Simon Hughes says that courts should be less forbidding and “alien” to those visiting them for the first time. This again can be addressed by a more understanding approach and by providing better information. However one can argue that courts should be forbidding and alien, they must be formal and unwelcoming in order to achieve their symbolic task of signalling disapproval. Only aspiring lawyers and possibly researchers should see a future day spent in a criminal court as a positive endeavour.
The way in which a distinction can be achieved is in the way one is treated, and the information and assistance provided to help those understand that the purpose of the building is not to censure all those who inhabit it.
The final point made by the Justice Minister, that I wish to address, is that people should not feel disadvantaged because they are lay people. There is certainly no need to humiliate or belittle lay people involved in the court process, and I trust that this is an infrequent occurrence, they are, after all essential to an adversarial system.
However, the stark truth of the matter is that lay people are at a disadvantage. The time taken to study law and then to learn the vocational skills to apply it inevitably place lawyers at an advantage over lay people. If lay people were not disadvantaged when compared to lawyers, there would be no need for lawyers; their very purpose in the court system is to be an expert in the process. Once again the answer may rest in making sure lay people are well informed and understand proceedings. The objection raised is more toward Simon Hughes’ poorly chosen phrasing than the sentiment behind it.
Herein is the problem with the Justice Secretary’s entire speech, it is political manoeuvring to create distance between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives as the end of the Coalition Government’s time draws near. This was not a speech which signalled any great change of policy, it was a collection of sound-bites aimed at highlighting the differences between two soon to be political opponents. Whether any tangible changes will be made in the year to come is highly doubtful, especially as Simon Hughes has admitted that no additional money will be made available to achieve it.