Friday, 1 March 2013

Defence lawyers left out in the cold . . . again

Criminal Justice Minister Damian Green yesterday (28 Feb 2013) announced the membership of the new 'Criminal Justice Board' - a panel designed to examine the flaws and inefficiencies of the current criminal justice framework, adopting a 'whole system approach'. 

Unfortunately (or perhaps deliberately) the Minister has omitted to include any direct representative of a rather important player in the process - the criminal defence lawyer. Alongside the prosecution, suspects and defendants comprise the primary party affected by the workings of criminal justice. Since defence lawyers are employed to represent them, it would seem logical and advisable to include them.

The Board includes representatives for the Police, the CPS, prisons, youth justice, the Courts, the LSC and for victims of crime (who, although clearly affected by the system, are not a formal party to the process). There is in fact room for multiple mouthpieces for the Police and Victims.  In contrast, the defence perspective has no advocate on the Board.  

This curious oversight is perhaps the continuation of a pattern; the criminal defence community has been excluded before. The Criminal Procedure Rules Committee has never had a direct representative of defence interests (although several members are ex-solicitors and barristers who no doubt have been defence practitioners at some stage). Defence lawyers were initially left out of consulations on the digitialisation of the criminal justice system. The defence had no representation on the short-lived post-Carter reform group spearheaded by the Attorney General at the time, Lord Goldsmith.

The exclusion of the defence community may also result from a deliberate 'deaf ears' policy adopted by successive Governments. The Coalition's single-minded quest to slash costs, shorten processes, cut corners, reduce defendant rights, expand victim involvement, and case manage the criminal process is regularly criticised.

To invite defence lawyers into the room would likely lead to dissent - and the Government is not looking for dissenters. The fact that the Board aims to create a service that 'meets the needs of victims and the public' suggests that defendant interests do not even register on the agenda. To include their representatives would therefore be another obstacle in achieving the stated goals of the Board.

The exclusion of the defence community may also be a form of punishment. The long-running battle over QASA, OCOF and (in the past) tendering for legal aid contracts has seen an extreme polarisation of the Government and the major defence representatives such as the Criminal Bar Association and the Criminal Law Solicitors Association.

With threatened universal strike action looming and furious diatribe eminating from the defence community (for example, see the blog of Michael Turner QC, Chairman of the CBA), the Government may be placing the rebels in the dog house.

Either way, to deliberately exile the defence community from the conversation is unjustifable and foolish (particularly considering that most of them have direct experience of the day-to-day problems the Board apparently seeks to rectify). If the Minister has simply forgotten to include them then it is outrageously incompetent.

On a final note, it is worth mentioning that the Board includes no academic representation. Considering that many scholars and researchers dedicate their talents to examining the criminal justice system from an outside perspective, it would seem worthwhile including a representative of the academy. But perhaps they are also likely to say things that the Board don't want to hear.

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