Monday Message 23.08.21

Charging rates recovering as criminal barrister supply dwindles:

Statistics published by the MoJ on 19th August 2021 have revealed that the percentage of police reported crime resulting in a charge has, at last, increased from its all-time low of 6.9% (421,265 of 6,082,555) at the end of March 2020 to 7.6% (418,227 of 5,449,758) a year later. However, this only brings the charging rate back to 2019 levels which have rightly been decried as unacceptably low and which were half the 2015 rate of 15.5%. It is troubling when Government, in determining “outcomes” within the CJS, equates a return to a pre-Covid baseline, normally referable to 1st March 2020, as some sort of success but that is how this will, no doubt, be described. The reality is that we were in crisis before Covid and a return to 2019 levels still represents failure.

No-one in our society should be compelled to accept a system in which the prospects of seeing a crime being punished are akin to the roll of a dice and where, in relation to sexual offending, the odds are far worse. It was in response to charging rates as low as 1.6% in the year ending December 2020 that Government in its Rape Review pledged dramatically to increase charging in the area of sexual offences. A Covid ‘court recovery’ plan was put in place as long ago as July 2020 but what we need is a longer-term recovery plan with immediate and significant financial backing from the Treasury which takes into account failings which have been obvious for many years and provides a coherent structure for the future.

 

‘Beating Crime Plan’ is only the beginning:

In July 2019, the then newly elected Prime Minister made a pledge alongside his new Home Secretary to recruit 20,000 police officers. Home Office figures showed that forces in England and Wales had lost 20,564 officers between March 2010 and March 2019. The Prime Minister said that he wanted recruitment to have been completed within three years, so by 2022. In August 2021 the Home Secretary promised to make criminals ‘literally feel terror’ at the thought of committing offences.

Last month, two years on from those pledges, the ‘Beating Crime Plan’ was published. It confirmed that we will have 9,000 of those officers by 2023, less than half the target a year beyond the original timescale. This delay is perhaps fortuitous for Government if not for anyone else.

The belated reintroduction of increased numbers of police into the community with greater powers than before will inevitably lead to the detection of more crime and involve a steep upward curve in charging. Even if each of those new 9,000 officers charged only one person a month then we would still have 108,000 more cases where criminal advocates would be needed to prosecute and defend, judges to hear them and courts where the matter could be heard.  The extra workload generated will continue to cause delays of even greater proportions.

This is immensely troubling. Whilst it is difficult to evaluate the benefits in purely monetary terms of a justice system which ensures that an adult rape case from allegation to conclusion is completed within a year as opposed to the current average of close to three years, there are clearly other immense benefits from having criminal trials conducted in a reasonable time frame including a safer, fairer and more humane society.

It bears repeating that criminal justice is an ecosystem which will not function until similar levels of investment are put back into the courts and advocates to ensure that the cases generated are progressed expeditiously through the courts.

The Criminal Justice System remains fundamentally under-equipped to deal with this brave new world. There is no indication that there will be any sustained re-investment into the Crown Prosecution Service beyond the £85 million injection over the last two years despite it having suffered cuts of about £1 billion in real terms over the last decade nor is there a plan for a structured increase in the number of court buildings after the numerous closures during the same period nor permanent staff to populate them. Access to justice has suffered a death by a thousand cuts with a significant increase in litigants in person and the morale of those professionals who continue to work within the system remains critically low.

The Covid Recovery programme has been in place over a year yet we are already at breaking point with insufficient advocates to cope with the volume of cases travelling through our courts. That is why the Criminal Legal Aid Review is amongst the most important of the last twenty years and its impact upon our society so significant.  However, even if its proposals make powerful recommendations for significant capital investment which are adopted by the Treasury, we will be back here in five years unless matters such as this are placed under the control of independent bodies and not subject to the whims of political metrics.

If Government really wants would-be offenders to feel terror at the thought of offending, they need to start by convincing them that they will be charged and then have available advocates for both prosecution and defence in order for the fact-finding process to take place. This is not a political metric but a simple question of economics so that criminal advocate supply can meet the criminal caseload. The public demands nothing less.

 

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