The new Lord Chancellor, Michael Gove, yesterday condemned what he saw as a “two nation justice system… On the one hand, the wealthy, international class who can choose to settle cases in London with the gold standard of British justice. And then everyone else, who has to put up with a creaking, outdated system to see justice done in their own lives” The lord chancellor is right to point out that our justice system can and should be better, especially our magistrates’ courts which deal with the highest volume of criminal cases. As I point out in my letter in the Telegraph, it is a refreshing change to hear a lord chancellor highlight how confusing and slow victims, witnesses and defendants find our current court processes. And how their voice is lost.
Our research clearly indicates that a court system that feels fair has to be understandable, needs to treat everyone with respect, needs to operate with neutrality and give people a voice. Yesterday’s Guardian article on this concept, procedural fairness, makes clear that people are far more likely to obey the law if the justice system treats them fairly and with respect. That begins with the way our courts relate to people who are due to come to court, it continues in the way that judges and magistrates speak to defendants, victims and witnesses and it continues when a case has been closed in how we give people the information they need to comply with court orders.
However, what everyone keen to see change needs to acknowledge is that many people working in courts are also frustrated. They are frustrated that process can often be prized over outcomes, and frustrated that a focus on efficiency misses out the way our courts can be more effective, at cutting crime, at keeping victims safe and holding offenders accountable. In order to work positively for reform, Mr Gove needs to work with others- lawyers, judges and other court professionals and the users of courts- to reform the system and that means recognising the pressures people are under, some of which has directly resulted from previous policy decisions. The fact is reform is challenging at the best of times, even more so at a time when budgets are squeezed, when policy change has called into question people’s access to justice and where court costs are disproportionately impacting the less affluent.
Nonetheless, things can get better despite this tough environment. Change can happen even in straitened circumstances. In Highbury, judges, magistrates and the court service, working with Citizens Advice, have developed a service which seeks to help people understand the court process and access the types of services that can help them move on with their lives and not come back to court again. It is this type of innovation, which was featured on yesterday’s Law in Action that we need to see more of.
New technology can certainly help to make the system more efficient. But it is just as important that we build a system that feels fair once more. While it remains early days, it is nonetheless welcome that there is a lord chancellor who recognises the importance of the system feeling fair for all. For if we want a one nation system, it has to be a justice system built on fairness.