David Blackburn

Stage 2 in the penal revolution

Stage 2 in the penal revolution
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The government’s position is that prison does not work. It aims to reduce prison numbers and now Ken Clarke has announced that further savings will be made to the criminal justice budget. The Times reports (£) that Clarke will continue Labour’s policy of closing courts; 103 magistrates courts and 54 county courts will shut up shop.

The Tories campaigned against court-closures at the fag-end of the last government; and there is whispered concern around Whitehall and Westminster that the concrete apparatus of justice is already over-stretched. But, savings must be made. Clarke's closures will save a paltry £15.3 million from the annual £1.1bn budget; the bulk of cuts will come from reducing the number of contested trials. The government will incentivise confession, awarding lags a 30 percent sentence reduction if they plead guilty at the first opportunity; 25 percent if they plead guilty after the trial date is set; and 10 percent at the door of court.

It is a good idea, riven with difficulties. Shortening or avoiding lengthy legal proceedings is logical, but it resucitates the early release controversy and raises a question of proportionality. As the Chairman of the Bar Council warns (£), disproportionate incentives to confess might encourage false confessions, which will waste police time and the Home Office’s budget as investigations would have to re-start. Additionally, incentivising confession increases the chance of miscarriages of justice, which the taxpayer must then compensate.

Today’s reports do not mention the legal aid budget - an obvious candidate for trimming but one that is politically difficult. In July, after two months of speculation, the Law Gazette reported that half a billion is to be cut from the £2.1bn legal aid budget. That story has since submerged, presumably under pressure from politicians and lawyers. As today proves though, the alternatives are equally problematic.

UPDATE: The Ministry of Justice have replied on the subject of legal aid: "The Government is having a fundamental look at the legal aid system - taking a fresh look across the whole system, to innovate and provide a value for money scheme built on sound foundations. In the current economic climate, the government is considering what the public purse should be funding and how to make the system more efficient."