Our system of justice and punishment has been gravely damaged by neo-conservative initiatives involving marketisation and the uncritical adoption of US practices by successive governments. The prison population has doubled, basic principles of justice have been undermined by media campaigns and electoral opportunism, while cuts in legal aid and a shift to funding via fees have excluded many poor people from proper legal representation.
Access to justice
As part of the 34% cut in the budget of the Justice Department imposed by the Coalition Government of 2010 to 2015, eligibility requirements were tightened and spending on legal aid reduced by £950 million. These changes have led to large numbers of vulnerable people being denied access to justice, and to the future viability of the whole legal aid system being called in question. The Radical Party supports the call made by the Bach Commission in September 2017 for an enforceable right to justice to be enshrined in a Right to Justice Act. Subject to all other avenues having been exhausted, this should give individuals a right to receive legal assistance without costs they cannot afford. It would be enforced by a new Justice Commission, as proposed by the Bach Commission, with guaranteed access to legal aid for benefits recipients, cases involving children would once again become eligible, as would cases involving certain areas of family and immigration law.
A representative judiciary
The make-up of the judiciary is also a matter of concern. At present, the Judicial Appointments Committee appoints judges and is supposed to ensure that they reflect the society they serve. However, selection exclusively from among barristers and solicitors virtually guarantees that this is not the case. According to the Sutton Trust, 74% of senior judges were educated at private schools, compared with 7% of the population at large. Currently, only 28% of judges in England and Wales and 21% in Scotland are women. A 2016 study by the Council of Europe showed that this compares with an average of 51% in the 47 Council of Europe members states and is one of the lowest shares of any European country. The system of selection also results in the average age of judges, at around 60, being much higher than the average in other professions.
End politics-driven sentencing
Between 1993 and 2014, the prison population in England and Wales rose by 40,000 (91%), with the fastest rate of growth occurring under Labour in the 1990s. As a result, Britain now imprisons a higher proportion of the population than any other advanced democracy apart from the US, with an imprisonment rate in England and Wales of 149 per 100,000, compared to 78 per 100,000 in Germany and 100 per 100,000 in France. This is combined with shockingly high levels of repeat offending and appalling conditions in many prisons.
The Prison Reform Trust and the Howard League have recommended that the prison population be reduced to half its present level. This would restore it to the level that applied before Mrs Thatcher came to power and would bring it into line (in relation to population) with countries such as Germany, Japan and Norway, where rates of offending are no higher, or are lower, than in the UK.
According to the National Audit Office, there is no consistent correlation between the number of people in prison and level of crime. Imprisonment is also a very expensive form of punishment, both in terms of the direct cost to the taxpayer, which, according to the Prison Reform Trust stood at £36,259 a year in 2016, and in terms of lost tax and in the costs of supporting dependants.
Prison and probation
Labour fought the election of 1997 with a commitment to oppose prison privatisation but within a few weeks had announced that all new prisons would be privately run, creating a lobby in favour of incarceration. With 18% of the prison population in England and Wales now in private prisons, the proportion of prisoners in for-profit prisons is double the rate in the United States and higher than in any other country in Europe.
The privatisation of more than half of the Probation Service in 2014, which transferred work with low and medium risk offenders to enterprises run by private contractors, has caused demoralisation and reinforced a shift from a welfare-based to a profit-oriented management philosophy. It has created an artificial barrier between different types of offences, disrupting the flow of information between professionals, who often need to work together.
Social justice and punishment
Wherever possible, forms of punishment should be adopted which focus on reintegration into the community, preserving family relationships and reducing re-offending. Currently 48% of all ex-prisoners offend again within 12 months of leaving prison. Despite this, the use of community sentences, which are cheaper than short prison sentences and more effective at reducing re-offending, has almost halved since 2006.
According to the Ministry of Justice some 200,000 children in England and Wales had a parent in prison during 2009. Research also shows that in 2008, children with a parent in prison were three times more likely than their peers to engage in antisocial or delinquent behaviour.
Ministry of Justice figures show that black men, who make up 2.8% of the male population, account for 10% of prisoners. According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the disproportion between black people in prison and in the population as a whole is now greater in the UK than in the United States. The Party believes that:
- the recommendations of the 2017 Bach Commission for the establishment of an enforceable right to justice to be enshrined in a Right to Justice Act giving all individuals a right to receive legal assistance without costs they cannot afford;
- an alternative professional path for judges starting from law school should be created (as exists in a number of European countries), opening the way to a judiciary which is more representative of the population in terms of gender, age and ethnicity;
- the sentencing guidance given to judges should be revised and the prison population progressively reduced to half of its current level with the resources freed up being used to fund forms of punishment which keep people in work and reduce the impact on families;
- judges should be required to take into account representations not only on behalf of victims’ families but also of the families of individuals facing possible prison sentences;
- consideration should be given to introducing a system, as exists in Finland, whereby fines are related to the ability to pay, so that better off offenders pay a similar proportion of income as poorer people. This would open a way to much greater use being made of fines and community sentences, rather than imprisonment, while respecting basic principles of justice;
- the privatisation of parts of the prison service should be ended and the management of prisons restored to the public sector;
- the delivery of probation services should be returned to the public sector as part of a wider move to move probation from being an adjunct of the Prison Service back into the framework of social services;
- effective steps must be taken to ensure that young black men are treated equally in the judicial and correctional system;
- the UK should remain fully committed to the European Court of Human Rights;
- prisoners should be given the right to vote (in their home constituencies) as the European Court of Human Rights has resolved.
TOLERANCE AND SOCIETY
The right to a private life
The Party believes that adults should be allowed to live their personal lives with a minimum of involvement by politicians, the media and the courts. It opposes censorship and vigilantism and supports a statutory protection for individuals from interference in their private lives by the media. The regulation of consenting sexual behaviour and Britain’s antiquated censorship laws should be reformed.
The Party supports the call by Amnesty International for the decriminalisation of sex work. It is opposed to the call by some Labour MPs for it to be made a criminal offence to pay for sexual services. Such a measure would aim to deny the 60,000 individuals who (according to the Treasury) currently support themselves by providing personal services their means of support. It would also put them more at risk, as in Northern Ireland, where this policy has had the effect of pushing commercial sex underground and endangering women’s safety.
Recent years have seen an increasingly punitive response to inter-personal problems, which contrasts with the approach followed in progressive democracies. Changes in police practices and the law have been introduced in response to press campaigns rather than on the basis of firm evidence that they will either reduce offending or increase the safety of potential victims. Publicising the addresses of certain sex offenders has led to attacks by vigilantes and to ex-offenders going to ground, cutting them off from professional support which could help them avoid further offending. The Party believes that:
- prohibition and interference should be replaced by an approach which encourages transparency, reduces the incentive for criminal involvement and balances respect for public sensitivities with minimal interference in people’s private lives;
- the proposal to make it a criminal offence for one individual to pay another for sexual services should be opposed;
- the principle of innocent until found guilty, which has been eroded in some kinds of drug and sex cases, should be respected; suspects in sex offence cases who have not been charged should have the right to anonymity, as recommended by the Home Office Select Committee;
- the law should be changed to make it possible for individuals who feel that they may be at risk of committing sexual offences to seek professional advice without automatically being reported to the police.
Marriage and Divorce
The handling of divorce has evolved substantially as a result of decisions taken in the courts. The changes concerned have corrected previous injustices toward the non-working partners, but they have also led to a situation where England and Wales are significantly out of line with practice in other countries and, in some cases, with a common sense understanding of fairness. The Party considers that:
- a commission should be set up to review the priorities for reform, with a view to putting divorce law back clearly under the control of Parliament;
- provision should be made for no fault divorce;
- the right to form civil partnerships should be extended to heterosexual couples;
- the logic of the concept of divorce should, wherever possible, allow a clean break where issues of income and property are concerned;
- improved rights should be given to grandparents to protect the financial interests of their children and grandchildren in the event of divorce.