To maintain societal cohesion, citizens must be bound by a shared set of values. If anarchy and chaos are to be avoided, a unified collection of principles must guide people forward together. This basic philosophy is possible through benevolent and evil means. On the terrible side, dictators can stamp their values on the demos with no political input or accountability. The public are told how to behave – or else.
On the beneficial side, these values are achieved through the rule of law. What is law? According to Google, it is ‘the system of rules which a particular country or community recognizes as regulating the actions of its members and which it may enforce by the imposition of penalties’. Societies coalesce together to determine what rules all of its members should adhere to. Elections grant the opportunity to change those rules, allowing them to remould to changing times.
If individuals break such rules, they must face the same consequences. Equality under the rule of law should be a cornerstone principle, ensuring everyone, no matter their background, is subject to the same rights and responsibilities. It is these values that I believe explain the appeal of courtroom dramas. There, the judge and jury, prosecutor and defender, demonstrate the fine line between being at liberty and under imprisonment.
Yet the crisis currently facing British justice could not be stronger. Do you hear a word about it from the near certain next Prime Minister Liz Truss? No. A former Justice Secretary herself, the chaos inside the legal sector is facing no examination or scrutiny. Part of this failure, I believe, sadly comes from voters. Individuals do no recognise the constraint and impact the law has on them, until they are personally facing it.
Though we all have images of grand courtrooms and fancy wigs, the process of justice takes far longer. Weeks, months, if not years, go into a case, whether civil or criminal. Solicitors spend hours compiling paperwork and making sure all the loose administrative ends are met. Barristers examine volumes of previous case law, demonstrating the precedent from previous laws alongside constructing their argument to convince the jury. Yes, the jury, that most important body. To be tried by one’s peers is a true cornerstone of liberty.
For such work, one would expect lawyers to be well financially compensated. Sadly not. Whatever the tabloids may tell you, to be a lawyer is not to jump into a career of financial security and economic elitism. Rather, the underpayments for their work mean justice – and all of us – take the hit.
From 5th September, the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) is conducting indefinite strike action, which, as they themselves admit ‘is expected to bring the criminal justice system to a standstill.’ Other lawyers are simply leaving the profession altogether, with recent figures showing a 9.4% drop in solicitors providing legal advice to those bought in for questioning at police stations.
The forthcoming strike action comes after action in May and June this year. The life of a barrister is not glamorous. Many work more than 60 hours a week in their first three years, taking home a median of £12,200 after expenses. They do not get paid for their preparation and have seen legal aid rates cut or frozen over the last quarter of a century. The Secret Barrister even argues legal aid funds have been cut by 40% in real terms. Calling for a 15% pay rise may seem excessive, but, given the rates of inflation and the duration of a pay freeze, it looks reasonable.
The strike will already exacerbate trial delays. Covid-19 meant trials moved online, while jury trials were (shockingly in retrospect) suspended. A pre-Covid backlog increased by 48%, with original social distancing measures preventing the full use of courts. Though the government is investing nearly half a billion in justice, including rolling out video technology to over 70% of courtrooms, the action is not enough. Between October and December 2021, 280 trials were adjourned because of the shortage of barristers.
The importance of an in-person trial cannot be forgotten. There, a barrister is arguing one’s case, either prosecuting or defending. By being face to face, it is easier for a jury to judge the body language, demeanour and, most importantly, quality of argument at play. Sadly, the delays of these have been staggering. Currently, there are 708 days between an offence being committed and the completion of a case, amounting to nearly two years. This 15% increase was from 620 days, which was hardly a number for celebration.
Such delays are inevitably an anathema to a fair trial. Though witnesses, complainants and defendants will have submitted statements at the time of the alleged crime, their memory, recall and awareness will naturally fade over time. What they say in court may be different from their initial remarks. Thanks to scientific advancements, biological evidence hardly ever lies and can be stored in labs. But, when a jury’s decisions can hinge on – potentially – trivial factors, any delay can heighten inaccuracy and thereby the final verdict.
That is if you can access legal aid at all. The principle that all should have legal representation is a noble one, given the specific expertise that comes with a deep understanding of the law. However, cuts to legal aid during the austerity years saw, for example, £350 million cut from the £2 billion legal aid budget, severely reducing eligibility and their final sum. Though many excellent organisations and lawyers work pro bono, they require financial compensation. While a duty solicitor will be at a police station, they are often a generalist and can never rival the most expensive justice money can buy.
The absence of justice from the leadership campaign is damning. Even if the contenders were to ignore the crisis, they should celebrate the first principles of justice: the presumption of innocence, unanimous jury verdicts, a right to silence. These cornerstone principles ensure any one of us in the dock – against the weight of the state and its resources – has a fair chance at justice.
Yet if individuals cannot financially access the representation, they stand no hope. If barristers and solicitors are not present, justice vanishes for us all. While the financially well-off will buy any representation they like, it completely departs from the ideal of justice not being up for purchase. It is time for governments and, yes, citizens too, to defend the legal sector being fully open to all.
Image: Wikimedia Commons