A top barrister claims the Government is leaving the justice system “on its knees” after failing to appoint any members to a much-heralded review of legal procedures.
Ahead of the 2019 election, the Tories vowed to pump £3million into a Royal Commission on criminal justice to improve efficiency and effectiveness in the areas of prosecution, trial, sentence and parole.
The last time such a review was carried out, in the early 1990s, it led to the creation of a body dedicated to investigating miscarriages of justice – the Criminal Cases Review Commission.
Despite the Government committing to the Royal Commission in its election manifesto, and including the plan in the Queen’s Speech in December, work on the initiative has ground to a halt.
Asked when the chair, timings, and the terms of reference of the Commission would be announced, the government’s Justice spokesperson in the Lords, Lord Keen, replied: “We are addressing the scope, terms of reference and membership of the commission.
“In doing so, we intend to embrace the lessons we can learn from the present [Covid-19] crisis; further announcements will be made in due course.”
Amanda Pinto QC, chair of the Bar Council, the body representing barristers in England and Wales, said progress on the Commission is “long overdue”.
She said: “It was blindingly obvious that the criminal justice system was on its knees before the pandemic hit, due to decades of underfunding.
“The appalling backlogs of cases – 40,000 and counting – are not born of the pandemic, although they are undoubtedly exacerbated by it.
“The Government had recently shown interest in law and order, as it looked to increase the recruitment of police officers and CPS prosecutors and Crown Court sitting days.
“That impetus has not only slowed down but has apparently gone in reverse, because of the restrictions made necessary by Covid-19, so, it is now even more important that the Commission goes forward at pace.”
The Government’s admission that a chair has yet to be appointed to the Commission, and the terms of reference have still not been drawn up, was criticised by the former Chief Inspector of Prisons, Lord Ramsbotham.
He told the House of Lords: “The prison and probation parts of the criminal justice system are in such a deep crisis—and not only because of the impact of Covid-19.
“I would have thought it sensible at least to have nominated the chair of the Royal Commission, so that he or she can monitor any lessons learned from attempts at resolution of that crisis.”
Sir Bob Neill, the Conservative MP who chairs parliament’s Justice Select Committee, echoed the concerns of Lord Ramsbotham.
He said: “It is obviously desirable that we should have clarity upon the make up and work programme of the Commission as soon as possible.
“The Justice Committee has been taking evidence on the impact of Covid-19 upon the justice system and there are lessons to be learnt from that experience which are relevant for the future and It would make sense for the Commission to take those into account.”
At least 23 prisoners and nine staff are known to have died while suffering from Covid-19, and there have been reports some inmates are self-harming or being violent towards others in order to be put in solitary confinement as a way of protecting themselves from the virus.