At a pre-election debate organised by JUSTICE last week, Lord Faulks (Conservatives), Andy Slaughter (Labour) and Simon Hughes (Liberal Democrats) discussed their parties’ respective justice policies before an audience primarily comprised of lawyers. The Labour shadow justice minister condemned what has, in his view, been ‘a terrible, terrible government for the justice system’. The representatives of the coalition parties understandably sought to defend the government’s record, while also setting out their visions of justice policy for the next five years.
The most unpredictable general election in decades is now less than three weeks away and the UK-wide political parties have all released their manifestos to formally pitch for our votes. Although justice policy may not generally rank as high as the NHS, the economy and immigration among voters’ concerns, a recent YouGov poll found that 84% of respondents rated access to justice as a fundamental right, compared to 82% for free healthcare.
In this context, the parties’ proposals – in their published manifestos and in recent policy announcements – to reform the justice system in terms of human rights, criminal justice, prisons and legal aid bear some scrutiny. This article attempts to provide an overview of the policy in these areas of the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, Ukip and the Green Party, as the parties standing across the UK. Although current polling suggests the Scottish National Party are on course to have the third most seats in a hung parliament, their manifesto had not been published at the time of writing.
Human rights and civil liberties
The Conservatives’ animus towards the Human Rights Act is well-publicised; their proposals to repeal the Act and seek to reform the UK’s relationship with the European Court of Human Rights – and the reaction to these proposals – were covered in detail on www.thejusticegap.com here. The party’s manifesto repeats this promise: the Conservatives will ‘scrap the Human Rights Act and curtail the role of the European Court of Human Rights’, breaking the ‘formal link between British courts’ and the Strasbourg court.
A British Bill of Rights ‘will restore common sense to the application of human rights in the UK’, protecting basic rights but reversing ‘the mission creep that has meant human rights law being used for more and more purposes’ and preventing ‘terrorists and other serious foreign criminals who pose a threat to our society using spurious human rights arguments to prevent deportation’.
Ukip also promise in their manifesto to ‘repeal Labour’s human rights legislation’, introduce a UK Bill of Rights and remove the UK from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights, ‘whose interpretation of the European Convention of Human Rights has been known to put the rights of criminals above those of victims’. The Supreme Court will ‘act as the final authority’ on human rights and the proposed Bill of Rights would ‘complement the UN Declaration of Human Rights and encapsulate all the human and civil rights that UK citizens have acquired under UK law since Magna Carta’.
The inescapable implication of both parties’ policies is that they wish to reduce human rights protection; that is, to strengthen the power of the state at the expense of the individual. Restrictions on judicial review and cuts to legal aid during this government dovetail with this objective to undermine any obstacles to the exercise of executive action.
Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party – as well as the SNP – are united in support for the Human Rights Act and the continuing jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights as a final court of appeal for human rights cases. At the JUSTICE debate, Simon Hughes, the Lib Dem justice minister, suggested that while pulling out of the European Convention on Human Rights ‘would be a dreadful move’ the Human Rights Act could be re-branded as a Bill of Rights to improve education and awareness of basic human rights and freedoms.
Labour’s manifesto promises to ‘stand up for citizens’ individual rights, protecting the Human Rights Act and reforming, rather than walking away from, the European Court of Human Rights’. The Liberal Democrats pledge in their manifesto to ‘protect the Human Rights Act and enshrine the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in UK law’, as well as committing to ‘take appropriate action to comply with decisions of the UK courts and the European Court of Human Rights’. The Lib Dems also promise to pass a Digital Bill of Rights ‘to define and enshrine the digital rights of the citizen’ and continue to oppose the so-called Snooper’s Charter.
Finally, the Green Party would keep the Human Rights Act and retain the UK’s membership of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Greens’ manifesto also says they will ‘move towards a written constitution with a Bill of Rights’.
Criminal justice, policing and counter-terrorism
Labour pledge to ‘protect neighbourhood policing’, abolish Police and Crime Commissioners (which the Lib Dems and Greens would also do) and ‘replace the discredited Independent Police Complaints Commission’ with a new Police Standards Authority. Labour would also replace low-level cautions for anti-social behaviour with ‘payback orders’ to make offenders ‘put right the wrong they have done’. The manifesto also states that Labour will ‘work to embed restorative justice right across the youth justice system’ and publish a Violence Against Women and Girls Bill.
The Conservatives’ manifesto vows to ‘speed up justice’ by extending the use of police-led prosecutions and to introduce a ‘semi-custodial sentence … for prolific criminals, allowing for a short, sharp spell in custody to change behaviour’. There is also a promise to ‘strengthen counter-terrorism powers’ and introduce ‘new communications data legislation [which] will strengthen our ability to disrupt terrorist plots, criminal networks and organised child grooming gangs’.
Under the heading ‘tackling the threat from extremism’, Labour criticise the government for scrapping control orders and cutting the funding of the Prevent programme. Labour would ‘update our investigative laws to keep up with changing technology, strengthening both the powers available, and the safeguards that protect people’s privacy’.
The Liberal Democrats pledge to pass a new Freedoms Act to protect free speech, reform joint enterprise, prevent heavy-handed policing of demonstrations and tighten the regulation of CCTV. On drugs, the Lib Dems would ‘legislate to end the use of imprisonment for possession of drugs for personal use’. Their manifesto states that terrorism and violent extremism require ‘a proportionate response’ and promises to ‘work with religious and community leaders, civil society groups and social media sites to counter the narratives put forward by extremists’, as well as maintaining ‘laws that provide an effective defence against terrorist activity’.
Ukip commit to ‘a review of what is and is not a criminal offence’, as well as ‘review of commensurate sentencing policy to address the changing nature of crime today’. Their manifesto sets out their overall approach to crime as being ‘one of firmness, coupled with deterrent and rehabilitative strategies and a focus on combatting crime that delivers clear social value outcomes’. The party intends to ‘draw a line under the cuts suffered by our police, prison and criminal justice services and provide them with adequate resources’.
The Green Party would treat drug addiction as a health issue, restrict police use of random stop and search powers, focus on crime prevention measures and ‘greatly expand the use of restorative justice, with the offender making up to the victim and the community’. The Greens believe this would enable them ‘substantially to reduce the numbers in prison and reduce reoffending’.
A commitment to increasing the rights of victims of crime appears to be shared by the present three main parties in Parliament. Labour pledge to ‘enact Britain’s first Victims’ Law to give victims of crime a voice and an entitlement to minimum standards of service from criminal justice agencies’. The Liberal Democrats would enact a Victims’ Bill of Rights, create a single point of contact for victims and give victims a right to choose restorative justice.
The Conservatives point to their Victims’ Code and say that in the next Parliament they will ‘strengthen victims’ rights further, with a new Victims’ Law that will enshrine key rights for victims, including the right to make a personal statement and have it read in court before sentencing – and before the Parole Board decides on a prisoner’s release’.
The Green Party state that their commitment to restorative justice ‘gives victims a voice and helps offenders to see the effects of what they have done’, but makes no mention of a specific victims’ law or bill of rights. Ukip likewise do not refer specifically to new laws to increase the rights of victims, but are ‘clear that the interests of law-abiding citizens and victims must always take precedence over those of criminals’.
The Conservatives pledge to ‘make further savings by closing old, inefficient prisons, building larger, modern and fit-for-purpose ones and expanding payment-by-results’. The Tories also promise to ‘continue to reform the way we rehabilitate prisoners’ and to ‘improve the treatment of women offenders, exploring how new technology may enable more women with young children to serve their sentence in the community’. Commenting on prisoner voting at the JUSTICE debate, Lord Faulks acknowledged there is a case for it, but said he ‘very much doubts that prisoners care’ and Parliament has clearly spoken on the issue; the ‘pragmatic response might be to give some short-term prisoners the vote’.
Labour’s manifesto promises to ‘do more to increase the amount of time prisoners spend working and learning’ and to measure prisons ‘by how successful they are in reforming prisoners and reducing their re-offending’. Ukip describes re-establishing prison capacity as an early priority and states that it will ‘free up prison space by removing foreign criminals’. The party’s manifesto also states unequivocally that ‘prisoners will not be given the vote’.
The Liberal Democrats aim to ‘significantly reduce the prison population by using more effective alternative punishments and correcting offending behaviour’, in addition to introducing a presumption against short-term sentences and ensuring prisons ‘become places of work, rehabilitation and learning’. Simon Hughes said his party would seek to reduce the prisons budget from £3.5 billion to £2 billion. The Greens’ policy on restorative justice is referred to above; they would ‘operate a smaller prison system, saving £5.5 billion over the course of the Parliament’, oppose privatisation of probation services and grant prisoners the right to vote.
Legal aid and access to justice
Labour have made a number of announcements in this area in recent months and in their manifesto make a general commitment to ‘make sure that access to legal representation, a cornerstone of our democracy, is not determined by personal wealth, but remains available to those that need it’. The Labour manifesto includes a promise to ‘widen access to legal aid for victims of domestic violence’, but this is the only specific reference to legal aid.
Although these commitments do not feature in the Labour manifesto, the party has promised to reverse the ‘no permission, no payment’ legal aid regulations for judicial review and to stop the two-tier contracts for criminal legal aid. At the JUSTICE debate, Andy Slaughter said that ‘the gravest injustices and anomalies’ will be addressed immediately, including the domestic violence eligibility criteria and exceptional funding for areas of law outside the scope of legal aid.
The Green Party go a significant step further than Labour, promising to reverse all legal aid cuts made by the coalition government, which they estimate would cost around £700m per year. This policy was first announced by the Greens’ justice spokesperson Charley Pattison in an interview for the Justice Gap here. In addition to this, the Greens pledge to ‘reintroduce legal aid for reasonable levels of immigration and asylum work’.
In a section of their manifesto titled ‘ensuring access to justice’, the Liberal Democrats commit to ‘review the criminal legal aid market and ensure there are no further savings without an impact assessment as to the viability of a competitive and diverse market’. The Lib Dems also promise ‘an immediate review of civil legal aid, judicial review and court fees, in consultation with the judiciary, to ensure legal aid is available to all those who need it, that those of modest means can bring applications for judicial review of allegedly unlawful government action and that court and tribunal fees will not put justice beyond the reach of those who seek it’.
By contrast, the only word on legal aid in the Conservative manifesto is a promise to ‘continue to review our legal aid systems, so they can continue to provide access to justice in an efficient way’. Lord Faulks accepted at the JUSTICE debate that legal aid cuts ‘have caused some hardship’ and confirmed that LASPO would be reviewed between 2016 and 2018. Ukip’s manifesto makes no reference to legal aid or access to justice, aside from a commitment to train and fund advisers to work in food banks to provide support ‘with issues such as debt, family breakdown, addiction and poor physical health’.
The Conservative manifesto is silent on court fees, simply undertaking to ‘continue the £375 million modernisation of our courts system, reducing delay and frustration for the public’. Labour’s manifesto also has nothing to say on court fees, although Andy Slaughter criticised the criminal courts charge and the introduction of up to 600% increases in civil court fees brought in ‘as a last gasp’ by the coalition government.
Justice policy may not attract as many headlines as the economy and other issues, but it is clear that there are significant differences between the parties, as well as areas of overlap which may become relevant in the increasingly likely event of a hung parliament after 7 May.
If you are interested in access to justice, you may wish to attend the Young Legal Aid Lawyers 10th anniversary event at London South Bank University on 23 April, which features a debate including representatives of the political parties and practitioners. All of the details, including registration, are here.
Oliver Carter is a solicitor at Irwin Mitchell and co-chair of Young Legal Aid Lawyers