JusticeWatch: Election manifestos compared

Manifestly awful
The Conservative party manifesto delivered on its well-trailed promises of 20,000 new police officers, 10,000 more prison places and a ratcheting up of sentencing powers – reported in the Justice Gap. A raft of criminal justice policies were unveiled which would represent a clampdown on the perceived excesses of  ‘soft justice’ as identified by the prime minister including enhanced top and search powers, a ‘root-and-branch’ review of the parole systems, a victims’ law and a pledge to maintain the ban on prisoners voting from jail. 

According to the manifesto, the Conservatives would ‘always back the brave men and women of our police and security services’. There would be increased use of stop and search (‘as long as it is fair and proportionate’), more tasers and body cameras, and a new court order to target ‘known knife carriers’ making it easier for stop and search. ‘Anyone charged with knife possession will appear before magistrates within days not weeks. Those who use a knife as a weapon should go to prison,’ it continued.

A Tory government under Boris Johnson would represent a major shift towards bolstering the rights of victims and away from protecting defendants. ‘Delivering justice does not just mean treating defendants fairly, but doing right by victims,’ the manifesto said. 

The Johnson government also promised a royal commission on criminal justice – the first since the 1993 Runciman commission established on the day that the Birmingham Six were released from prison as a result of concerns about miscarriages of justice. 

It wasn’t clear whether the Conservatives were supporting judicial review or not. JR should be available ‘to protect the rights of the individuals against an overbearing state’ so long as it was ‘not abused to conduct politics by another means or to create needless delays’. 

There was no mention of legal aid. The words ‘access to justice’ did feature but only in the context of a somewhat opaque section on the need for constitutional reform.

‘After Brexit we also need to look at the broader aspects of our constitution: the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the courts; the functioning of the Royal Prerogative; the role of the House of Lords; and access to justice for ordinary people… . We will update the Human Rights Act and administrative law to ensure that there is a proper balance between the rights of individuals, our vital national security and effective government.’
Conservative manifesto

Also on the Justice Gap, Luís Lago reviewed the manifestos of the three major opposition parties. Labour would restore all early legal aid advice for housing, social security family and immigration cases, and also ensure legal aid for inquests into deaths in state custody. Shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon has already pledged £20m for a network of ‘people’s law centres’ and another £18m to fund 200 jobs based in specialist social welfare agencies. Speaking at the recent Labour party conference, Burgon announced his party has been working on a blueprint for the future of law centres. The manifesto was short on some of that detail – see below.

‘Legal aid cuts mean essential legal help is too often denied. To help people enforce their rights, we will restore all early legal aid advice, including for housing, social security, family and immigration cases. We will recruit hundreds of new community lawyers, promote public legal education and build an expanded network of law centres.’
Labour Party manifesto

While the Greens also mentioned a roll back of the legal aid cuts, Lib Dems proposed an investment of £500 million to restore the system and also to make it ‘simpler and more generous’.

Unrepresented defendants
Legal aid cuts continued to devastate the criminal justice system as figures from the Ministry of Justice revealed an increasing number of unrepresented defendants in crown courts – also reported by the Justice Gap.

At the annual Bar Council conference in London over the weekend, the chair of the Criminal Bar Association flagged up figures from the Ministry of Justice showing that in 2018 up to 7.7% of those appearing at the crown court for their first hearings were not represented by a lawyer. In 2010, this figure was 4.9%. Caroline Goodwin QC said that an increase in litigants in person ‘builds in a time delay because their cases take longer’.

The MoJ statistics also showed that over the same period the proportion of those being unrepresented at any stage of their trial rose from 0.6% to 1%. Campaigners have responded to these figures saying that without people being able to access representation, the risk of defendants facing miscarriages of justice would be significant.

Defendants in the crown court are eligible for legal aid if their disposable income falls under £37,500 however they might have to make a contribution to the funding of their defence.

‘At the moment, 40% of criminal courts are sitting empty. You can’t get access to court. How is that access to justice? Unless there’s investment [the criminal justice system is] going to fail and falter.’

‘If the courts are not sitting then justice can’t be done. More sitting days. [We need to] reduce the backlog that is bound to increase. Give us buildings that work and, above all, invest in our criminal justice system. Our buildings are falling apart.’
Caroline Goodwin QC (as reported in the Guardian)

Remembering Ian Macdonald QC
Nicholas Reed Langen told the story of the Mangrove Nine – ‘when Black power took on the British establishment – and won’ – for the Justice Gap and paid tribute to the pioneering radical barrister Ian Macdonald who died earlier in the month. 

‘The trial of the Mangrove Nine was a historical event. The first time the British establishment, sitting incarnate as a robed judge in the Old Bailey, recognised that there was institutionalised racism at the heart of the British state. Alongside this, it played its part in the rise of the radical barrister, Ian Macdonald QC, who died this month. Macdonald was a landmark figure in the civil liberties community, campaigning both in court and beyond for equality in society. He was instrumental to the trial of the Mangrove Nine, guiding the black activists in the presentation of their case, and relentlessly challenging the prejudices of the bench, the prosecution and their witnesses.’
Nicholas Reed Langen

Housing law threat
Housing lawyers called an emergency meeting to discuss JUSTICE project which ‘says courts may not be the best starting point for such issues’. ‘While recommendations have yet to be published, the Gazette understands that some housing specialists are worried that lawyers will be excluded from any proposed process,’ Monidpa Fouzder wrote. 

Justice has convened a working party, chaired by Andrew Arden QC, looking at digitisation of housing disputes. ‘The idea is for a holistic, investigative and non-adversarial dispute process, where all matters in issue between parties to a housing relationship and those that underpin the housing problem (benefits, mental health etc) are investigated, identified and adjudicated upon by the service,’ JUSTICE said. Its ‘tentative proposal’ was that any savings would be reinvested into ‘publicly-funded legal advice, with housing lawyers to advise parties… at a sustainable rate of funding, which would have to be multiples of the current rate of funding for advice, to sustain quality, holistic housing advice’.

Gender equality on the bench
Half of the judges in England and Wales would be women in fewer than 14 years, Lady Hale predicted – as reported by LegalFutures.  ‘In 2015, Lord Sumption infamously suggested that gender equality among the judiciary should not be rushed as it would discourage men from applying, and said it could take 50 years to get parity with men on the bench,’ the article read.

Speaking at the Bar Council’s annual last weekend, Lady Hale said: ‘We’ve done the sums and we don’t think that’s right.’ Since Sumption’s prediction, the percentage of women judges in courts had increased from 22.6% to 32%. ‘If this rate were to be maintained, we would need fewer than 14 more years to get parity in the judiciary as a whole,’ Lady Hale reckoned.


About Jon Robins

Jon is a journalist and has written about the law and justice for the national papers and specialist press for more than 15 years. Jon is a visiting journalism lecturer at Winchester University, a visiting senior fellow in access to justice at the University of Lincoln and patron of Hackney Community Law Centre. He has won the Bar Council’s legal reporter of the year award twice (2015 and 2005). Jon is editor and co-founder of LegalVoice

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