Our system of justice and punishment has been gravely damaged by underfunding, failure by successive governments to carry through overdue reform, marketisation and the adoption of inappropriate neo-conservative US practices. The prison population has doubled, basic principles of justice have been undermined by media campaigns and electoral opportunism, and cuts in legal aid and a shift to fee-based funding have denied many poor people proper legal representation.
The Radical Party Proposes:
- Accessible Justice for All
- A Representative Judiciary
- A Humane and Effective Punishment System
- Drug Abuse and the Law
- Abortion Law Reform
- Marriage and Divorce
Accessible Justice for All
As part of the 34% cut in the budget of the Justice Department imposed by then Coalition Government of 2010 to 2015, and through the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act of 2012, eligibility requirements for legal aid were tightened and spending on legal aid reduced by £950 million. The means tested threshold was lowered, automatic entitlement for those on means tested benefits was removed and legal aid ceased to be available for housing, family disputes, welfare and debt.
These changes have led to large numbers of vulnerable people being denied access to justice and have put future viability of the whole legal aid system in doubt. The number of claims for legal aid submitted per year fell between 2012 and 2018 by over a million. The number of legal aid providers providing paid civil law legal aid fell by over 1,000 and the number of, often stressed and inarticulate, individuals representing themselves in court rose by over 500%. According to Law Society findings reported by the BBC, large parts of the country are becoming “legal aid deserts”, with, for example, over a million people living in areas where no legal aid at all is available for housing cases.
The Radical Party supports the call by the Bach Commission for an enforceable right to justice to be enshrined in a Right to Justice Act, giving individuals a right to receive legal assistance without costs they cannot afford and enforced by a new Justice Commission, which would guarantee access to legal aid for benefit recipients. Cases involving children would once again become eligible, as would cases involving some areas of family and immigration law.
A Representative Judiciary
At present, the Judicial Appointments Committee appoints judges and is supposed to ensure that they reflect the society they serve but selection exclusively from among experienced 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 and 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 current selection system also results in the average age of judges, at around 60, being much higher than the average in other professions. The Party believes that 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.
A Humane and Effective Punishment System
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. The imprisonment rate in England and Wales is 149 per 100,000, compared to 78 per 100,000 in Germany. 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 than in the UK.
According to the National Audit Office, there is no consistent correlation between the number of people in prison and the 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 the cost of supporting dependants.
To address this problem, the sentencing guidelines given to judges should be revised and the resources saved by reducing the prison population used to fund forms of punishment which keep people in work and reduce the impact on families. Much greater use should be made of financial penalties for crimes which do not involve a physical threat to the public. The system, as exists in Finland, whereby fines are related to the ability to pay should be extended, so that wealthier offenders pay a similar proportion of income as poorer people, which would justify a greater use of non-custodial sentences while respecting basic principles of justice.
The Party considers that the UK should remain fully committed to the European Court of Human Rights and that prisoners should be given the right to vote (in their home constituencies) as the Court has resolved.
The privatisation of parts of the Prison Service should be ended and the management of prisons restored to the public sector. 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 revelations by the Prison Inspectorate in August 2018 of the appalling conditions in the privately run Birmingham prison have revealed that companies managing private prisons are not required to publish information on key factors such as staffing levels. Staffing relates directly to the deep-rooted and growing issues of drug abuse, violence, self-harm and suicide among prisoners, which repeated reports by the Prisons Inspectorate have revealed to be endemic in some prisons. The Party calls for immediate steps to ensure that in future all prisons are required to meet the same high standards with regard to transparency and public accountability,
The Probation Service
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 reinforced a shift from a welfare-based to a profit-oriented management philosophy. It created an artificial barrier between different types of offences, disrupting the flow of information between professionals, who often need to work together. A history of failures in the delivery of probation services obliged the Government in July 2018 to announce that the Service is to be brought back into the public sector. The Radical Party supports this move and believes that probation should be moved from being an adjunct of the Prison Service back into the framework of social services.
Prison and Social Justice
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. To help ensure that the wider consequences of imprisonment are fully taken into account in sentencing, the Party believes that judges should be required to consider representations on behalf of the families of individuals facing possible prison sentences.
Ministry of Justice figures show that black men, who make up 2.8% of the male population, account for 10% of prisoners. Indeed, 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 urgent steps must be taken to understand the ethnic imbalance in Britain’s prisons and ensure that young black men are treated equally in the judicial and correctional system.
Drug Abuse and the Law
Recently, a number of countries, the Netherlands, Portugal and Uruguay, together with some US states, have substantially relaxed controls on the use of certain drugs. No country, however, has taken the step of decriminalising the supply of substances such as heroin because of evidence that doing so would lead to a steep drop in prices on the street and an increase in consumption, which would be impossible to reverse.
Drawing on this experience, the Royal Society of Public Health (RSPH) and the Faculty of Public Health (FPH) published a report in 2016, which argued that the UK should follow the example of Portugal and treat the use (but not the supply) of drugs such as cannabis, cocaine and heroin as a medical and not as a criminal matter – while at the same time increasing investment in prevention and treatment. More recently, in 2018, the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) endorsed this recommendation, arguing that the proposed change would help ensure that drug users had access to: “timely and appropriate prevention and care services”.
The Party believes that policy on drug abuse should be based on the best available evidence. It supports the recommendation by the RSPH, the FPH and RCP that, while the supply of currently illegal drugs should continue to be a matter for the police, the use of such substances should in future be treated as a medical and not as a criminal matter and that there should be a move away from the use of imprisonment for less serious drug-related offences.
Abortion Law Reform
The current legal situation with regard to abortion in the UK is contradictory, undermines what should be fundamental rights, poses a threat to women and health workers and should be reformed. During the 19th century, laws were introduced which imposed increasingly harsh punishments on people who carried out abortions. These culminated, in the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, which introduced a maximum sentence of life imprisonment for anyone carrying out an abortion or attempting to self-abort.
As awareness grew of the appalling suffering and loss of life caused by back-street abortions, pressure grew for reform. This led to the 1967 Abortion Act, which legalised abortion but only in certain defined circumstances and with the concurrence of two medical practitioners. The new Act qualified the Act of 1861 but did not replace it and, moreover, only applied in England, Scotland and Wales and not in Northern Ireland or the Isle of Man. Despite the fact that the Act of 1967 was in its time very progressive, changing attitudes and circumstances mean that it now urgently needs to be replaced. For example, because the 1861 Act remains in place, it is still in 2018 the case that a woman who takes the morning after pill (which can be obtained over the counter) without the consent of two doctors could theoretically be condemned to life imprisonment.
The Radical Party considers that the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act should be repealed and the requirement for the consent of two medical practitioners removed. The conditions under which an abortion can be approved under the Act of 1967 should be repealed so that abortion before the legal limit of 24 weeks is treated as a medical matter and not a matter for the criminal law. At the same time, means should be found to ensure that women in Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man are granted the same rights with regard to abortion as those which apply in the rest of the United Kingdom.
Marriage and Divorce
The handling of divorce has evolved substantially in recent years as a result of decisions taken in the courts. The changes concerned have corrected previous injustices toward 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 believes that the law should be modernised and put back clearly under the control of Parliament. It welcomes the Government’s announcement in September 2018 that no-fault divorce will be introduced and a commission to be set up to review the priorities for reform and the trend towards divorce allowing for a clean break where issues of income and property are concerned. It believes that grandparents should be given improved rights to protect the financial interests of their children and grandchildren in the event of divorce. It also believes that consideration should be to be given to raising the minimum age for marriage from 16 to 18 to protect young people from pressure from relatives to marry against their own wishes and that the right to form civil partnerships should be extended to heterosexual couples.
SUMMARY OF PROPOSALS
Accessible Justice for All
- restore proper funding for legal aid;
- establish 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;
- establish an alternative professional path for judges starting from law school to encourage the development of a judiciary more representative in terms of gender, age and ethnicity.
Prison and Probation
- revise the sentencing guidelines given to judges and reduce the prison population to half its current level, while promoting punishments which keep people in work and reduce the impact on families;
- make greater use of financial penalties for non-violent crimes;
- extend the system whereby wealthier offenders pay a similar proportion of income as poorer people;
- end prison privatisation, restore prison management to the public sector and require all prisons to meet the same high standards of transparency;
- move probation from being an adjunct of the Prison Service back into the framework of social services.
Social Justice and Punishment
- require judges to take into account representations on behalf of the families of individuals facing prison;
- take effective steps to ensure that young black men are treated equally in the judicial and correctional system;
- ensure the UK remains fully committed to the European Court of Human Rights;
- give prisoners the right to vote in their home constituencies.
Drug abuse and the Law
- treat supplying illegal drugs as a crime but their use as a medical, not as a police matter;
- end the use of incarceration for less serious offences involving illegal drugs;
- review the experience of changes in the law relating to drug abuse in other countries and explore how any lessons can best be applied.
Abortion Law Reform
- repeal the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861 and remove the need for the consent of two medical practitioners;
- change the law so that abortion before the legal limit of 24 weeks is treated as a medical matter and not a matter for the criminal law;
- ensure that women in Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man have the same rights with regard to abortion as apply in rest of the country.
Marriage and Divorce
- put divorce law back clearly under the control of Parliament and bring it into line with best practice in comparable democracies;
- introduce the principle of no-fault divorce;
- extend the right to form civil partnerships to heterosexual couples;
- ensure that divorce, wherever possible, allows for a clean financial break;
- give grandparents improved rights to protect the financial interests of their children and grandchildren in the event of divorce.