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WHAT PRICE JUSTICE?

You all know the old adage, "there are lies, damned lies and statistics". Never has this been more true than today when access to all sorts of information has never been easier. The wise amongst us, however, will know to look behind the figures to get to the real truth.

A few weeks ago figures were published to show that the number of people being dealt with in the criminal justice system has fallen to its lowest level for 43 years. Good news, you might think, until you consider the impact of the current initiative for "restorative justice" where offenders can meet their victims or be ordered to do work in the community to avoid going through the court system and thereby fall outside of these published figures.

Consider again a report published this month by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC), and commissioned by our Police & Crime Commissioner for Kent, Anne Barnes, which found, amongst other things, that Kent Police had under recorded approximately one in ten crimes and where cautions or penalty notices had been issued inappropriately to those who should have been charged and brought through the courts. The report also found that the blight of statistics and target chasing had led to some officers focusing on categories of crime which have the best chance of a quick and easy resolution rather than more serious crimes or those having the greatest impact on the people and communities in Kent.

At a time of financial hardship and when resources are being squeezed, it is perhaps not surprising that these things happen. The lesson is, however, that cheaper does not equal best value.

The same applies to the Government’s current attempts to cut the Legal Aid budget in the criminal justice system. Resurrecting an idea first considered (and later ditched as unworkable) by the last Labour government under the title Best Value Tendering (BVT), the current Lord Chancellor, Chris Grayling, is seeking to implement Price Competitive Tendering (PCT). In essence, this amounts to the removal of a person’s ability to choose a solicitor if they have the misfortune of being arrested and/or charged with an offence. Instead a solicitor will be appointed for them by the state from an organisation (not necessarily a law firm) which has bid the lowest price to do the work. Any price bid must be at least 17.5% less than current rates which have not increased since 1997. A recipe for shoddy work is made worse by a financial incentive to get those charged to plead guilty. Unsurprisingly this has met with almost universal opposition, and not just from the legal profession. Unfazed, Chris Grayling quotes figures and statistics with the assistance of the Daily Mail only for these to be exposed as misleading by none other than the Mail On Sunday.

The battle rages on but, at its heart, this is a battle that should concern us all. We can take pride, at present, in a system of justice which is the envy of the world. Nowhere is this more important than in the criminal justice system which deals with the most vulnerable (the Prison Reform Trust says 70% of the 84,000 prison population in England and Wales has two or more mental health disorders). We, at Gullands, have recognised the valuable role played by criminal defence lawyers in this country and are one of a dwindling number of high street practices still offering this service. We can be contacted 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for so long as Government plans allow.

John Roberts can be contacted at j.roberts@gullands.com