The crime and justice arena has had a hard time over the past few years. Despite not being a qualified lawyer, former Lord Chancellor Chris Grayling made sweeping and dramatic changes to the legal system, usually against the advice of those with criminal and legal expertise.
Those of us who work in this sector were more than relieved to hear that, with the new cabinet appointments, Grayling would not be returned to the post of Secretary of State for Justice. However, the verdict is still out on whether or not Michael Gove, his replacement, will be an improvement. The (very) little we have heard from Gove so far, suggests not. In fact, it looks as if Gove will continue the previous Government’s theme of creating a system which provides justice for only those who can afford it.
For those of us who believe people are more valuable than any financial profit, and that justice is not justice unless it is accessible to all, here are four key things to keep your eye on over the coming months:
Children who go to prison are some of the most vulnerable individuals in our society. The majority are victims of abuse, neglect, exploitation and many have been in care. Mental health problems, trauma and communication disabilities are the rule for young people in prison, rather than the exception. Re-offending rates amongst children remain unacceptably high as our justice system continues to prioritize punishment over provision of the therapeutic support children need to recover and transform their lives.
Now, thanks to Grayling, the Government are half-way through their plans to build the biggest children’s prison in the western world, called a Secure College. The current models of imprisoning children, imperfect as they are, will be replaced with a 320 place (a third of the total child prison population) titan prison which, contrary to current practice, will group together all ages of children as well as both girls and boys. In 2013, girls made up 5% of the custody population and under-15s made up 4%.Given the proposed size of secure colleges, at most there would be around 16 girls and 13 children under-15 housed in environments predominantly designed for 291 older boys. Various organisations, including the Standing Committee for Youth Justice, advised strongly against this set up, recognising that this could increase the likelihood of children self-harming or harming others. So, why has this Government ignored the repeated and impassioned pleas of the experts? Why? because the Secure Colleges will ‘reduce costs’ of course.
Legal aid, much like the NHS, was introduced during the post-war creation of the welfare state. Its aim was to eliminate the obstacles and barriers that stop people from accessing justice, namely by providing assistance to people otherwise unable to afford legal representation and access to the court system. UN Special Rapporteur, Gabriela Knaul, said in 2013, “Legal aid is both a right in itself and an essential precondition for the exercise and enjoyment of a number of human rights, including the rights to a fair trial and to an effective remedy.”
The ConDem Government introduced huge changes to legal aid, which now means that many of the poorest and most vulnerable people will not have access to legal representation in court. For example, many people facing eviction are unable to obtain legal aid which is leading to more homelessness and more children being separated from their families. Barristers and lawyers themselves have taken to the streets to protest the changes. As Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “It is not possible to be in favour of justice for some people and not be in favour of justice for all people.” So, why were the legal aid reforms introduced? Again, to save money in the age of austerity.
Steve White, chair of the Police Federation, has warned that if further cuts are made to policing, then the police will be forced to take a more violent approach, stating that with less money “you get a style of policing where the first options are teargas, rubber bullets and water cannon.” We all know that policing without consent will lead to huge civil unrest. Poor police-community relations were the trigger for the 2011 riots. And in a society where mass-protesting is becoming a weekly activity, this paramilitary style policing will undoubtedly impact upon all of us.
The Conservative Party have pledged to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998 and replace it with a British Bill of Rights. We should expect to see the introduction of the Bill in 100 days. The impact of this cannot be underestimated; it is the safety net beneath all crime and justice matters and the means by which we protect the individual against the state. It should come as no surprise to us that a Government who cuts benefits for those of us who are ill or disabled or dying, and who forces people to work for free, has no problem with removing an act that guarantees protection from discrimination and freedom from slavery and forced labour.
Whilst the link between austerity and repealing the Human Rights Act may not be immediately apparent, the link is certainly there. Human Rights are not only violated by acts of torture or abuse or imprisonment, but are also violated by unfair economic structures that create huge inequalities. Every cut that has been made to the health system, the education system, the justice system and the welfare system in the name of austerity, is a cut to our civil liberties and human rights.
The Government’s unnecessary approach to austerity is leading people in Britain to the point of starvation and death. We know this. The Government knows this. And so now the Government are ensuring that the mechanisms we have in place to protect ourselves and fight back are removed.
Article Written for The People's Assembly by Rebecca Joy Novell