By Melissa Manley
The UCL Student Pro Bono Committee held its first termly panel event on 14th of October to talk about the UK’s justice system and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic with three specialists. The discussion centred around Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 which removed more than £350 million from the legal aid budget and has led critics to claim that the court system is overstretched to breaking point.
The first speaker of the night was MsAntonia Kim Charles who is director of MTC Solicitors with over a decade of experience in criminal defence. The second speaker, Tristan Kirk, was a court correspondent for the London Evening Standard with decades of experience across a range of courts. Last but not least was Mr Maximillian Hardy of Bedford Row, a criminal and regulatory barrister appointed to the highest level of external barristers instructed by CPS. The discussion was centred around three major talking points.
Was there a crisis in Criminal Justice System prior to the pandemic?
To which the speakers answered with a resounding yes. Antonia Charles noted that the cuts had resulted in a lack of available resources leading to cutting corners; for example, waiting on CCTV footage which form the basis of most trials and less time for proper police investigations, and a new policy of ‘release under investigation’ which allows the police to delay charging defendants for two years at which point the defendant may have turned their lief around but may still be sent to prison. In that vein, Ms Charles drew on the lack of alternatives to prison sentences such as crime prevention funding, specifically. when charging young defendants with knife offences.
Tristian Kirk went on to discuss the government’s desire to grab headlines, showing that they were tough on crime as counterproductive, as these headlines simply avert attention from the run-down leal system. He used examples of court rooms sitting empty in a deliberate attempt to reduce judges’ sitting hours to save money resulting in trial delays – stating that now the government must take ownership and find solutions. Maxiillian Hardy agreed with Kirk, adding that the impact had been monumental, and that the public was oblivious.
Impact of Coronavirus:
The justice system was not exempt from the pandemic. Kirk applauded the justice system for its attempt to move to remote hearings, but noted that the pandemic exposed just how far behind the judicial service was in term of technology. Hard followed on from Kirk by questioning why the government had not put plans in place for the pandemic and the pandemic had only “made it 100 times worse”. Although Hardy acknowledged the use of video recordings as the silver lining of the pandemic – he too criticised the slowness of the system to accomodate advances in technology and the speedy move back to in person trials for setting dates rather than prioritising court rooms for non-administrative hearings. Ms Charles also addressed the physical strain on solicitors who are facing case back log and difficulties in visiting prisoners.
The three speakers drew from the experience of Covid-19 to come up with innovative solutions. Hardy advocated the use of different venues and cautioned against taking away trial by jury during the pandemic except as a last resort. He highlighted the issues of removing the jury as a minority of judges are battle hardened and run the real risk of jumping to conclusions. Furthermore, he was particularly impressed with virtual trials and advocated for defendants to be able to choose virtual trial, whereby the jury and prosecutor all in different locations, even suggesting that it was fairer for the defendant as it removes the hierarchical set up of a court room and is more accessible to citizens to restore faith in our justice system. Kirk also felt that the courts missed the opportunity of virtual trials – but added the caveat that justice felt more disconnected and thus it was not necessarily the best solution. Ms Charles was clear that the solution was simple: more funding. Yet, Kirk believed the crisis could not be fixed by funding alone or radical reforms; instead the government needed to restore public trust – potentially by harnessing the power of the media.
Question and Answers:
There were a variety of interesting questions for our panel. The first question related to whether the introduction of technology was a barrier to access to justice. Kirk was clear that there was no one-size fits all situation as for the majority it will be useful but for some it will be a barrier – however that does not mean that it should not be used at all. The next question focused on the increased time defendants spent in custody. Hardy lamented the missed opportunity for the judges to have taken a stand to incite public outrage about the issue. But Kirk stated the situation was a symptom of a much wider problem: a sign that the system was not working.
Finally, in terms of what students can do: all the speakers talked about being more vocal about legal justice reform. Hardy had the last word, stating that law students should pursue a career in criminal justice as it is a safe bet that crime is here to stay.