Police and Crime Commissioners: the public face of justice

Blink and it is almost possible to miss the election cycle which installs Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) across England and Wales’ 43 county based territorial police forces; this year’s elections took place on May 7th with an increased turnout on 2012’s elections. The establishment of the elected PCC role was a hugely controversial policy from the last Parliament, however PCCs now have their feet firmly under the table and are taking responsibility for an ever wider range of services within and beyond the criminal justice system as well as local police budgets. So who are our PCCs and what relationship do they have with the access to justice debate?

Since LASPO and other reforms started to be introduced, we have seen an increasing retreat of community law services from medium and market size towns, with County Police constablaries also downsizing their operations outside the main conurbations, and when it comes to small villages and hamlets even PCSO cover is increasingly disappearing.

In this year’s elections, former legal aid Minister Lord Willy Bach stormed to victory in his home turf of Leicestershire. He is not however the first ex-legal aid Minister to tread this path; former Redcar MP Vera Baird QC was re-elected for a second term and has used to role as a platform to carry forward her high profile campaign to tackle domestic violence.

Whilst Bach and Baird may enjoy high profile names from the legal world they are certainly not the only candidates with legal aid links to enter the electoral fray; in deep blue Hampshire and Suffolk the Labour and Liberal Democrats both ran able well respected local solicitors and legal aid lawyers as their PCC candidates neither of whom were elected. Labour’s Robin Price (Hampshire) promised investigate the local impact of legal aid cuts and court charges and deliver a strategy to mitigated these including getting more help to people with mental heal problems early on in the criminal justice system. The Liberal Democrats Helen Korfanty (Suffolk) talks about being ‘proud of our legal system but concerned by how it is being undermined by ill considered political policies and draconian cut backs in funding’ and prioritises policies and support services to tackle domestic violence and anti-social behaviour so that the burden on the police service that could be alleviated if an alternative approach were taken.

The role is of course highly political – indeed the main criticism of the PCC model of police accountability has been around the creeping politicisation of policing. In the last round of elections, 12 independents were elected; this year only three independent survived with the other swept away by the machines of the main political parties which are better equipped to campaign over a county wide area. And whilst PCCs still have to prove their worth, it is clear that they are here to stay, each controlling a budget of typically up to £300 million annually and being the public face of police accountability (for example the revelations of widespread child sexual exploitation in Rotherham led to the resignation of South Yorkshire PCC in 2014).

But it is not just policing and the numbers of ‘bobbies on the beat’ that PCCs have oversight and ultimate budgetary control of, but increasingly the wider criminal justice system and emergency services in their areas; they will now get to run fire and rescue services under the Policing and Crime Bill currently carried over to the new Parliament. They can also focus chunks of their budgets on prevention and crime reduction strategies, bring together community safety and criminal justice partners to make sure local priorities are joined up, and since last 2014, commissioners have also had responsibility for support to victims and restorative justice programmes, as well as aspects of offender management and rehabiltation work (such as drug intervention programmes).

PCCs of all people should also be aware that civil justice problems filter through into the criminal justice system. Findings from the Civil and Social Justice Survey indicated that 63% of people who had been arrested reported one or more ‘difficult to solve’ civil law problems, compared to just 35% of other people, and rising to 70% if people had also been a victim of crime, and over 80% for those who had recently been released from prison. These cohorts were significantly more likely to experience problems concerning, for example, employment, rented housing, homelessness, money/debt issues etc.

The legal aid and wider access to justice community need to engage much more pro-actively with PCC agendas, and look for the strategic opportunities for improving justice at local levels through both influencing and working with PCCs in their areas. As the Ministry of Justice continue to stubbornly defend LASPO despite its failures as well as the closure of local courts, advocates for repairing our justice system and third sector and advice providers need to seek out new allies in developing alternative strategies for delivering justice and should start by talking to the PCCs.

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