07:26, April 02 135 0 theguardian.com

2018-04-02 07:26:05
First thoughts  
 The UK justice system is in meltdown. When will the government act?

Britain’s criminal justice system is in disarray. The head of the crown prosecution service, Alison Saunders, is resigning amid rows over failed convictions. The head of the Parole Board has been forced to resign over the Worboys case. London’s murder rate has overtaken New York’s, with fatal stabbings in Britain at their highest level since 2010. Prison violence and suicide are rising. If this was local government, Whitehall would have sent in commissioners to sort it out.

The rule of law demands that justice be separated from politics. That is clearly not happening. Saunders’s department has been inundated by pressure from politicians to take a tough line on sex cases, from domestic violence and rape to harassment and historical abuse. In some regions as much as one-third of court time is now consumed by such cases, which can be of intense complexity. The CPS has been trapped time and again by failing to follow rules of disclosure to defence lawyers. But it lacks competent staff. Its budget has been cut by a quarter since 2010, another political “intervention”.

The Parole Board suffers a similar plight. While the Worboys case appears an error of judgment, it has hit a parole service still reeling from botched semi-privatisation in 2015; 70% of districts were subcontracted to private operators whose objective is to save money. The justice ministry as a whole is being cut by 40% over the current decade. The legal aid budget has been reduced by almost a half.

Most serious is London’s now rising rate of violent crime. Whether or not a cut in police numbers leads to a rise in crime is controversial – in New York the opposite is the case. What is clear is the rise in violence in London’s toughest neighbourhoods. At the weekend the metropolitan police chief, Cressida Dick, declared a return to more aggressive “stop and search” in violence-prone areas. She openly blamed social media for allowing gangs to “posture” on the web, and drive their followers from “slightly angry” to “fight” in an instant. Will nothing induce government to confront the social media giants? If they were the “mainstream media” they would be instantly prosecuted.

There was undoubted waste in Britain’s archaic justice system. Barristers bewailing falling fees still refuse to abandon their costly monopoly on court appearances. The extravagance and delay of Britain’s equally archaic jury system is exorbitant. Much of the cost of justice is due to the obsession of British public opinion with imprisonment. To none of these are ministers prepared to address themselves. But austerity is clearly biting far below any surface waste. It is taking a huge gamble with the nation’s domestic security. Heaven forbid a royal commission, but something has to change. In the first instance it should be the cuts.

Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist

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