Post Office scandal shows there are ‘votes in justice’, says Law Society

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The legal establishment is seeking to persuade the leaders of the UK’s main political parties that votes can be won on justice policy, as they make a case for investment to tackle a crisis in prisons and the courts.

Ahead of election manifesto launches from the Conservatives and Labour this week, Nick Emmerson, president of the Law Society, told the Financial Times that “emergency” funding was needed to fix a system that had “begun to crack at every level”.

Sam Townend KC, chair of the Bar Council, meanwhile said in a speech on Saturday that about £2.5bn of additional spending on the justice system was needed per year, for a total of £13.4bn, to bring it “back to working order”.

Emmerson acknowledged that the justice system had been targeted for spending cuts as it had a lower political priority than areas such as healthcare or education. But he insisted there were “votes in justice”.

“If you look at the reaction to the Post Office scandal and the TV show, people do still care about justice,” he said, referring to the ITV drama about wrongful convictions, Mr Bates vs the Post Office, that captured the public imagination earlier this year.

Budgets for prisons and justice were among the hardest hit by the government’s post-financial crisis austerity drive, and real terms funding for justice per person declined by 22 per cent between 2010 and 2023, according to the Bar Council.

While government austerity is not regarded as a main cause of the Post Office scandal, which had its roots in a faulty IT system, lawyers warn its legacy has led to broad injustices elsewhere.

Victims and defendants are waiting almost two years on average between alleged offences and sentencing or acquittal at the crown court, which hears the most serious cases including rape and murder and where there is a record backlog of about 67,600 cases.

Bail hearings in England were delayed last month to prevent more prisoners arriving in bursting jails. Police were also recently advised by the National Police Chiefs’ Council to consider pausing “non-priority” arrests owing to pressure on prison places, although the government said these were “contingency measures” that had not been required.

The Bar Council’s Townend said such “desperate” measures were “symptoms of a failing system”.

He called for the next government to ensure crown court trials start no more than six months after the first hearing, to “reverse the tragic evisceration” of early legal advice, and to extend the availability of legal aid.

Legal aid spending had reduced by 40 per cent per person over the past 14 years, he said, which had contributed to court delays as more parties were appearing in court without representation.

In a paper to be published on Monday, Emmerson will call for the next government to immediately increase criminal legal aid rates by 15 per cent to prevent an exodus from the sector, and to “invest what is needed” in the courts to deal with the backlogs.

He warned that the City of London’s status as a pre-eminent global hub for corporate litigation and legal advisory work — an “economic powerhouse” for the UK — could be at risk without proper investment in the other parts of the legal sector. 

“We can’t go out to the world as City law firms and boast that our system is the best in the world if the reality is that it’s crumbling,” he said.

“Our justice system should be a source of national pride,” Emmerson added. “The next government should help it become one again.”

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