UK Courts and Corrections – learning from abroad

I’m en route to Oslo so now is a good time to reflect on the UK stage of my whistle-stop justice tour.

Our legal and political systems owe a lot to the Westminster model. When you get up close and personal, though, it’s apparent that there are subtle and not so subtle differences in structure as well as scale. For example, who knew there were over forty different police forces across England and Wales?

Their Courts and Corrections Service have a lot in common with ours, mind, notwithstanding differences such as a much larger private sector involvement. That private sector involvement extends to the recent partial privatisation of the parole service, which is an initiative far from universally applauded!

My first meeting was with David Lammy, a Labour MP who has been given the task of writing a report on the over-representation of ‘BAME’ – black and minority ethnic people – in the UK prison system. There is evidence that young black and ethnic minority men are more likely to be stopped and questioned by police and if questioned, are more likely to be arrested and charged. This is still a concern despite real efforts to diversify the police force (and just walking the streets in London is enough to see that the UK force is a veritable United Nations!).

The outcomes indicate the existence within the police force of the same ‘institutional bias’ that our own Police Commissioner spoke about earlier this year, but talking with David and others highlighted the difficulty of defining the terms of reference for such a broad project.

I also had a very useful meeting with the Deputy Chief Inspector of Prisons – proof that there is no substitute for direct contact with people in the job. I gained a much better understanding of how their inspectorate operates and the challenges it faces. This was a great take-away for when my member’s bill establishing an Independent Prison Inspectorate is drawn from its long-term home in the Table Office’s biscuit tin and given its time in the sun.

I made a train trip to Birmingham and learned a great deal from a morning spent with the Criminal Cases Review Commission. This is an independent body that can review possibly ‘unsafe’ convictions; if satisfied there is evidence of a miscarriage then the matter can be referred back to the appeals court. The Commission has returned over 600 cases to the courts in the twenty years since it was established; more than 400 of those have resulted in a conviction being quashed.

The Greens don’t (yet) have a policy on a CCRC but I’m personally convinced that it is high time we established such a body, answerable to Parliament rather than any government or ministry. We’ve had a number of proven miscarriages of justice and we need to stop relying on underfunded individuals or ‘ad hoc’ support groups to investigate and advocate on behalf of the victims of injustice.

My visit with Claire Fielder, Head of the Office of the Sentencing Council, gave me a real insight into how the Council manages the always-fraught issue of balancing judicial independence and Parliamentary sovereignty.  The sentencing guidelines developed by the Council are somewhat more prescriptive than I had expected, in terms of the ‘starting point’ judges can take for any given sentencing, but there is still considerable scope for discretion based on the variables of any given case.

My host appeared slightly bemused when I told her that in 2007 the Labour government passed legislation to establish such a Council in NZ, but that the subsequent National government never actually established the Council.  The Act is included in a Statutes Repeal Bill, which had its first debate a week or so ago.

My belief that we should strenuously oppose the repeal has been reinforced by seeing first hand the value of an entity that can deliver much greater consistency than is evident in our system.

Further reading