Yesterday, the Lord Chief Justice was up in front of the Justice Select Committee. As has been the way before when the legislative branch cross-examines the judicial, it was less a grilling and more a light poaching. But for those of us interested in justice reform, there was much to take heart from the Lord Chief’s remarks, especially around the criminal courts.
Perhaps most welcome are his comments that he would prefer to “avoid sending certain people to prison” by putting them on “really tough, and I do mean tough, community penalties.” These comments were not least welcome as they came shortly after the former Lord Chancellor Michael Gove’s admission at the Longford lecture that, in his time in office, he “swerved” the inconvenient truth “that we send too many people to prison.”
Therefore, the Lord Chief’s remarks add to a growing number of people who recognise that we would be better served, and just as safe, if more people were successfully rehabilitated before the courts were left with no option but to imprison. Both see the role that more problem-solving approaches can play in community supervision, as ways of reducing re-offending and providing alternatives to shorter prison sentences.
If there were moments for reformers brows to furrow in the evidence session, they were only ones where there feels like a dissonance between the Lord Chief’s hopes and the technocratic words of the court service. For example, when questioned about court closures and rural access to justice, the Lord Chief reasonably has hopes in pop-up courts in council buildings and town halls. A lot of good work has been done on this, by JUSTICE and others. But the experience of court closures over the past five years does little to suggest that anything will actually be done to get the courts to come out to the people.
Online criminal courts
Or take the new proposed online criminal court process for low level offences.
When asked, the Lord Chief’s view, rightly, is that process must be open to the light, transparent and that digital justice must improve, rather than retard, access to justice. This view is largely in line with our own response to these proposals and indeed the concerns raised by organisations like the Magistrates Association.
If the Lord Chief had his way, those concerns would be satisfied. But one can understand the pessimism of some that, after a period of consultation on some proposals, the court service may just continue what it was planning on doing anyway.
In short, if the judicial view prevails, we can be confident that British justice is in safe hands. But the question remains about whether the executive is prepared to follow where the judiciary leads.