If you’ve ever been to a criminal court, you will know exactly how impressive justice is. Not necessarily impressive in terms of theatrics, but rather in the sense that sitting in a courtroom; with twelve of your fellow citizens on the jury; the judge commanding the proceedings from their bench; and the advocates hard at work defending their clients; you can sense that this is what justice is. In the criminal court you are, as a defendant, innocent until proven guilty; the state must prove your guilt beyond reasonable doubt and the final decision is that not of a lawyer or an administrator but your peers, the ordinary men and women of the realm. It is the rule of law at work, in which the court is independent, the jury without bias and the right to be represented accessible to all. At least, that is, in theory.
For us, as students at the University of Cambridge, we have an undeniable interest in ensuring that the rule of law is upheld in this country. Many of us, myself included, are studying for a law degree and it is therefore in our professional interests to ensure that the career into which we enter will have meaning, in which justice can be properly exercised in courts supported and respected by the Government - this is without even mentioning the scores of us reading other subjects that will enter the law after graduation. Whether we will specifically practice criminal law or not it is incumbent on us to protect the entire legal realm; where one area of the law is made a victim, the rest will be easy targets.
For those of us not studying law and never intending to find legal work there are still reasons why you should nevertheless care for justice. The first is that no matter in which field you will work, whether you’re wanting to be a geneticist or archaeologist, your field will be shaped by the law, be it the regulations provided by the Human Tissues Authority or applying for planning permission for digs. No matter what you do, the law will affect you, so the law had better work and work well. The second reason is simpler and in fact applies to us all, lawyer or no: as citizens of the United Kingdom we have a vested interest in ensuring that the law functions as intended, so that our liberty may be protected, punishments exercised justly and living with our peers be as harmonious as possible.
We all benefit from a fair, functioning and freely accessible legal system. Unfortunately we are living through an unprecedented attack on the rule of law, at the forefront of which is the criminal justice system.
To say the criminal law has been taken for granted by the Government since 2010 would be an understatement; rather it has been abused, starved of respect and resources and it is putting the rule of law in the UK at risk. Take the Crown Prosecution Service, the body charged with managing the majority of criminal prosecutions in England and Wales: staff numbers have fallen 25% and its budget is smaller than that assigned to free TV licences for pensioners. Further cuts are planned: a 40% reduction in the Ministry of Justice’s budget means the CPS, already struggling, is on the edge of collapse. Just as egregious are the court closures: more than 230 local courts have shut since 2010, including magistrates’ and crown courts, denying local access to justice meaning witnesses, victims and defendants are forced to traipse miles to even get a chance of having their hearing. The remaining courts are buckling under the workload. The Magistrates’ Court here in Cambridge was even scheduled for closure, forcing anyone, whether belonging to town or gown in the pursuit of a criminal complaint or defending against a charge to be forced out of their city for hearings. Luckily this eventuality was prevented.
The same luck Cambridge Magistrates’ Court enjoyed cannot be said to extend to the diligent advocates that work inside. Most criminal advocates work on legal aid rates which, in the most callous judicial policy of recent times, were slashed, with more than £340 million drained from the criminal legal aid budget. Advocates are now paid as little as £3 an hour in some circumstances and, as the criteria for being granted legal aid have narrowed, fewer people have access to professional representatives, compromising their right to a fair trial. This is illustrated by the case of Nigel Evans MP, who voted in legal aid cuts and then was forced to pay £130,000 to defend himself in court on a number of charges on which he was acquitted. This is the real choice forced upon our fellow citizens today: surrender your savings or have an unfair trial. It is nothing short of a highwayman’s demand.
The curtailment of fair and free access to justice is not something which happens in dictatorships far away, rather it is happening in Cambridge and indeed across the UK today and will continue until we stand up and act. It is your future at stake should the rule of law be compromised, no matter which field you are in. And don’t forget, one day it may be you in a criminal court and all the theories of the rule of law will mean nothing to the overworked barrister, the under-resourced court and the unrepresented person next in line. By then however, it’ll be too late.