Solicitor Advocate Abigail Ashford analyses the issues prevalent in the criminal justice system in Edward Fennell’s Legal Diary.

Abigail’s article was published in Edward Fennell’s Legal Diary, 27 May 2022, and can be found here.

The UK has long been admired as a bastion of justice and as one of the world’s major legal hubs, its criminal justice system has historically been upheld as something to be proud of. However, years of systemic underfunding have taken their toll on the system, and the pandemic has only served to fundamentally expose and exacerbate already deep-rooted inadequacies.

Delays are arguably one of the most glaring symptoms of chronic underfunding, and have affected the entire criminal justice system, from top to bottom. Defendants, including youths or other vulnerable individuals, routinely find themselves in limbo due to police backlogs in investigation and a lack of Court time post charge. One client waited nine months for the Court to find time to simply deal with his sentence once he had pleaded guilty, long after lockdown measures were relaxed. There is an ever growing disillusionment with the system, and victims and potentially vital prosecution and defence witnesses perhaps understandably lose faith faced with constant adjournments.

Those in custody awaiting trial during the pandemic found themselves confined to cells for 23 hours a day, with limited access to education, social interaction or support from their loved ones. Sadly this has shown no sign of abating in recent months, and not only does this inevitably impact on prospects of rehabilitation, it also has an impact on wellbeing in general. One client has seen their mental health deteriorate to such an extent since they have been in the custodial environment that there are now grave concerns from medical professionals about the risks of suicide, and no doubt many others in that environment sadly share that same position.

Warnings and recommendations from across the industry and outside, including the report of Sir Christopher Bellamy, have largely fallen on deaf ears, and what limited investment there has been, is slow and wholly inadequate. The criminal Bar have been forced to take action for the second time in recent years, through the “no returns” policy to draw attention to the urgent need for investment. Criminal defence solicitors are also now considering whether they can justify accepting certain cases because the funding for them is so poor. The loss of experienced professionals over appalling working conditions has raised concerns that an exodus of experience, coupled with a lack of incoming young talent, may have dire consequences for diversity and access to justice in the near future.

Despite a pandemic-induced shift to remote hearings and video links, this has not been enough to materially reduce delays or ease the system’s burden. Court closures, combined with a lack of judges, prosecutors and lawyers, makes tackling backlogs impossible without urgent investment.

The situation is dire, and without significant support, criminal law is increasingly at risk of becoming accessible to only those who can afford it.

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