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  • Writer's pictureDurham Pro Bono Blog

Ponderings from professionals: What current practitioners in the criminal justice system truly think

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.

By Zoe Adlam

They sit in towns and cities across the country. Nestled next to industrial units and rows of shops. Yet, despite the omnipresence of the criminal justice system, society never stops to seriously think about the system. Instead, the focus centres on quantifiable statistics of backlogged cases and pitiful wages, watering down the reality of the situation. However, the problems the system is facing are very real, and solutions desperately need to be found. In order to find such solutions, where better to begin than by listening to the people who work within the system. So, I asked current practitioners about their thoughts towards the current system: here is what they had to say.

The practitioners

Eve Robinson, a barrister at The 36 Group. She undertook a common law pupillage in East Anglia. Her practise includes crime, where she appears in both Magistrates and Crown Courts on behalf of the Crown and Defence.

Joanne Henderson, a trainee solicitor at Gotelee Solicitors, a full-service law firm in Suffolk. She assists the qualified solicitors in the criminal team with matters including advising and representing clients who are either being investigated or charged with a criminal offence. She also assists with the ongoing effects of POCA orders, bail conditions and also victims of crime who have not found satisfaction with their complaints to the police.

Harriet Lavin, a criminal barrister at Exchange Chambers, acts for both the prosecution and defence, in both the Magistrates’ court and the Crown court in a variety of criminal matters. She also played a part in organising Exchange Chambers Crime Newsletter.

Do you see yourself working within the CJS long term?

Eve Robinson (ER): Having undertaken a Common Law pupillage, criminal work forms a part of my practise and in fact, I have found I undertake significantly more family work than anything else as the demand for representation in this area is extremely high. As a result of this, unfortunately I don’t anticipate working in the Criminal Justice System long-term however, it will always remain an area of law that I thoroughly enjoy.

Joanne Henderson (JH): Yes, I do. I am set to qualify into the criminal defence department in the firm I am training with. I feel very passionately about the work I can do as criminal defence solicitor in trying to ensure that innocent people do not lose their liberty (or good reputation), or that prosecutions and sentences are just and in line with public interest.

Harriet Lavin (HL): I do see myself working in the system long term.

What do you believe the main challenges to the CJS currently are?

ER: A significant challenge to the Criminal Justice System (COVID aside!) is how under-funded the system is. The lack of funding impacts the Criminal Justice System in a variety of ways, perhaps the most prevalent being the continued and significant cuts to Legal Aid. The lack of funding in this respect sees Barristers and Solicitors working extremely long hours on cases, with them not being paid for the majority of it, but they continue to do so out of dedication to their clients and the profession. It also renders those accused of crime extremely vulnerable, with the potential for them to be placed in a position whereby they must face their trial without any assistance or legal representation. One never thinks they’ll find themselves involved in the Criminal Justice System … until they do, whether as a Defendant, Witness or even a Juror, which is why it is so very important it is properly funded, for all involved. If you haven’t already, I would highly recommend reading both of The Secret Barrister’s books, they articulate this issue far better than I ever could!

JH: The continuous reduction in availability of legal aid in criminal cases is a huge challenge to the system. A good example is, if legal aid was readily available to people before charge, then many cases may not even be prosecuted which would seriously reduce the pressure on our courts.

The other main challenge is the backlog of cases in both the Magistrates Court and Crown Court. I believe both of these would be assisted by an increase in availability of Legal Aid and clearer guidance for the police and CPS on charging decisions.

Our current criminal record system is also problematic, as it can be detrimental to the rehabilitation of ex-offenders and prohibit them from gaining employment and contributing to society once more.

HL: I believe that the main challenge to the system currently is clients’ ability to access justice, which has stemmed from legal aid cuts. From a personal perspective, I cannot think of any challenges to myself as a professional.

How would you like to see the CJS change in the coming years?

ER: In the last year, the Criminal Justice System has had to adapt dramatically in light of the challenges brought by COVID, one of those adaptations being the introduction of remote hearings, either in whole or in part. I would like to see the Criminal Justice System maintain this use of technology and remote hearings, where appropriate. The ability to conduct hearings from home, without the need for a four hour round trip to Court for example, (particularly when hearings can often be all of 10 minutes), makes a significant difference to all, but especially to those who are caregivers. We know that women still predominantly take on these roles and their retention at the Bar is an area of concern. The maintenance of remote hearings, in my view, will go a long way in addressing this and ensuring we continue to promote a Bar that is diverse and accessible to all.

JH: I would like to see an increase in funding to the system and availability of legal aid. I think a reform to the criminal record system which would enable some ex-offenders to have certain offences (non-violent and non-sexual offences) expunged from their record, or “sealed" would be a positive change that would stop minor offences being an unnecessary bar to people moving on with their lives.

HL: One particular way I would like to see the system change in the coming years is to see diversity across all levels of the system.

What are your hopes for the future of the CJS?

ER: I am really hopeful that we are able to reflect and review on the way in which the Criminal Justice System can work given our experience of the last 12 months, as opposed to simply rewind and revert back to the way things were for the sake of convenience and ease. I am also hopeful, although this applies to the Bar in its entirety, that we continue to strive to do all that we can to be a diverse and accessible profession at all levels because that, in my view, has a significant impact upon how the Criminal Justice System will continue to function successfully and more importantly, progress.

JH: I hope that the criminal justice system can develop to serve the entire community well, which includes victims, witnesses, and defendants.

To me this means police investigations being handled expeditiously, so complainants can get closure as soon as possible and defendants are not left in legal limbo for longer than necessary, with cases then progressing through the court system swiftly, with constant focus on trying to resolve cases in a way that is just and in the public interest.

HL: Linking back to my answer about what changes I would like to see in the coming years, I hope for the future of the system that it has more diversity in the barristers involved and there is fairer access to justice.

So, what did we learn?

Startingly what has been repeated throughout is the issue of the lack of funding: it is a persistent and prevalent issue that seriously needs addressing. It being raised as an issue from both sides of the profession is reflective of how important it is to resolve. But interestingly alongside this issue is a sense of hope that things can get better, and there is a plethora of ideas to do so. And clearly with professionals like these, I have no doubt that things will.

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