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Criminal Barrister Makes Case for Why Main Political Parties Missed Chance to Combat Crime and Fix Justice System this Election

A lawyer with 25 years of experience in the criminal justice system critiques the “underwhelming” pledges made in party manifestos

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour Leader Keir Starmer. Photo: Mark Hawkins / Alamy
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour Leader Keir Starmer. Photo: Mark Hawkins / Alamy

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Even though, for most of us, the chances of becoming the victims of a crime are reassuringly low, people are fearful of the thought of crime and as such, it remains a key election issue.

As we reach the critical point in this general election campaign, almost every opinion poll puts law and order in the top issues of concern for voters and the battle to appear to be the party best equipped to tackle the gargantuan task of upholding the nation’s law and order, is being as keenly fought as ever. 

Sadly, the battle ground upon which the issue of law and order is being slugged out is depressingly familiar with all the main parties trying to out-do the other with bigger and bolder claims about how many police officers they’ll employ or how many criminals they’ll lock up. 

A criminal barrister is “underwhelmed” by the five main political parties pledges to address crime and justice. Photo: Don Jon Red / Alamy Stock

And if they’re not boasting about the size of their projected police forces, they’re trying to out-muscle their opponents with machismo slogans about fighting crime.

Just as Tony Blair promised to be “Tough on Crime, Tough on the Causes of Crime”, and Boris Johnson promised his “Blitz on Crime” by setting up ‘flourescent-jacketed chain gangs,’ in this general election Keir Starmer claims that Labour will “Take Back The Streets,” whilst Rishi Sunak’s Conservative Party, will “protect our streets and deliver a justice system for victims and the public”. 

As a barrister with 25 years experience of crime, criminals, victims and the criminal justice system, I’ve considered each of the headline policies set out by the five main UK wide political parties and posed the question: will the proposals have any impact upon law and order and the criminal justice system as I experience it. But firstly, what are the big issues face our criminal justice system – I’ll focus on just three.


Plans to Beat the Backlog

The massive backlog of cases caused, not by Covid or the barristers action as claimed by the government, but, overwhelmingly by the closure of courtrooms and court centres over the last two decades, is one. At present the backlog of cases is over 70,000 with the average wait for a case to be heard from arrest or charge to final trial is over 18 months. Every day Judges are forced to adjourn cases for trial for up to two years, because there are no courts or judges available before then. More often than not, the longest wait are for offences of a serious sexual nature such as rape, because the specialist counsel needed to prosecute these offences are simply not able to fit them into their already burgeoning schedules. 

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The Conservative Manifesto promises to cut the backlog by keeping open Nightingale Courts, funding sitting days, investing in court maintenance, and funding 100 new criminal law pupillages. Nightingale Courts, which are courts set up in non-court buildings, such as hotels or football stadia boardrooms, are unsuitable for the most serious offences as they don’t have cells, whilst their location away from court centres, means that barristers can’t get through other work if they appear in them as most barristers, typically, will appear in a number of different courts in the same court centre over the course of the day.

Funding sitting days and investing in court maintenance is all well and good, but in the absence of any new money, is unlikely to help a great deal, whilst the proposal to create new pupils, again, laudable, but hardly an answer to the current problem as it takes quite a few years before a new barrister has the experience necessary to conduct a crown court trial. 

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Labour’s plans to address the backlog are even more limited, promising only to allow ‘Associate Prosecutors’ into the crown court whilst making no promises whatsoever to create new courtrooms or buildings. I have no idea what an ‘associate prosecutor’ is, but I’m not sure I would want one bringing a case for the Crown if I was the victim of a crime. 

The Lib-Dems in their Fair Deal Manifesto, promise funding to set up a strategy to half the time taken from offence to sentence, implement new strategies to ensure that capacity meets demand, and develop a workforce strategy to ensure that there are enough judges, barristers and court staff. I confess to having little confidence that corporate style language will be enough to sort out the mess that is the criminal justice system, especially in the absence of any promises about funding, but I’m sure that they mean well. 

The Greens, to their credit, promise a £2.5 billion investment to renew “our crumbling court system,” however, they don’t then expand to say whether this means buildings or judges or court staff – but it is a start. 

Reform UK’s ‘Contract’ has no plans whatsoever to address the backlog of criminal cases, but, do promise to lock up more criminals – how they intend to do this in the absence of judges to judge, prosecutors to prosecute and courtrooms to try the individuals they want to lock up, is a mystery. 


Knife Crime Plans that Just Don’t Cut It

The next issue which rightly features in most of party’s manifesto’s is knife crime – however, none of the parties in my opinion are prepared to address knife crime in a truly honest way.

The Conservatives say that they will “toughen sentences” – whilst omitting to point out that in the last fourteen years sentences have been systematically increased for offences of possessing a bladed article or offensive weapon, and that this has had pretty much no impact in reducing the numbers of convictions for these offences. 

None of the five main political parties are trying to combat knife crime in an honest way. Photo: Simon Price / Alamy

In Labour’s manifesto we are introduced to their “knife crime action plan” which promises to half knife crime in a decade by looking at early warnings for potential offenders which would result in “rapid intervention” and “tough consequences,” with young people caught carrying a knife referred to a Youth Offending Team. In addition, the banning of online sales of knives is to be commended, as is the plan to set up a Young Future’s programme with hubs in every community to provide young people with support for everything from careers to mental health. 

The Lib-Dems have a similar interventionist approach to knife crime and youth offending and promise to treat youth offending as a “public health issue” that identifies and treats risk factors and invest in youth services that will engage with young people. 

The Greens manifesto refers to an initiative in Bristol that introduced practical solutions to addressing knife crime, but unfortunately doesn’t set out what they were. 

Reform UK plans to set up High Intensity Training Camps run by army veterans to teach basic education to young offenders – good luck with that.

Sadly, not a single sentence in any of the main political parties is given over to the problem of drug use and supply and the dark black market that is a consequence of our drug laws. Anyone who spends even a few hours in a criminal court will know that there is a direct link between drug use and the illegal supply of drugs and knife crime.

None of the main political parties made any attempt to address drug dealing and drug laws. Photo: Karolina Krasuska / Alamy Stock

County lines drug operations, where sophisticated criminals organise young people to run drugs to different locations has grown into a criminal epidemic in recent years, whilst the impact of drugs on the NHS, social services and local infrastructure is absolutely massive – but, despite this, none of the parties are brave enough even to mention reforming or even considering the reform of the drug laws which at the moment do little other than create the nefarious commercial environment in which drug addicts suffer and organised criminal gangs thrive. 


No New Ideas on Protecting Women and Reducing sex Offending

Sex offending and offending against women is the third element of the criminal justice system that is covered by each of the parties, and again, with justification; the courts are overwhelmed at present with cases concerning sexual offences and violence against women. 

The Conservatives do address it in their manifesto and remind voters that they created new offences of coercive and controlling behaviour and intentional strangulation – which are undoubtedly useful in the fight against domestic violence, but other than that there is little else to suggest that they have any innovative ideas to tackle this growing problem.

The courts are overwhelmed with cases concerning sexual offences and violence against women. Photo: Paul Melling / Alamy Stock Photo

Labour’s manifesto promises to introduce specialist rape and sexual offence teams in every police station, which, if funded properly, would be a useful tool in ensuring that from the very first moment a complaint is made, sexual offences are properly investigated; a more progressive, if vague pledge, is to address misogyny in schools and teach young people about healthy relationships and consent – this is without doubt a welcome policy, and I am intrigued to hear how Labour would go about implementing this. 

The Lib-Dems surprisingly, don’t address violence against women or sexual offences in their manifesto, whilst the Green’s make the rather meaningless promise that their MPs will always stand up against misogyny and violence against women and girls – well, they’re hardly going to advocate in favour of it. 

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Reform UK, do have a section about Child Grooming Gangs, and putting aside this unspoken attempt by the right wing to dog-whistle up a link between race, culture and sex offending, it does then set out the sensible suggestion to set up a National Child Protection Agency to work with charities, councils and health services to identify high-risk children. 


Opportunities Missed and Big Issues Ignored

On the whole, the pledges and promises contained in the manifestos of the five main parties on law and order are underwhelming. There are no plans to address rehabilitation and recidivism by improving the probation services whilst the plans to give police forces the resources they need to improve the efficiency of investigations are, at best illusory, whilst the really big issues surrounding drugs, online fraud and cyber-crime are barely mentioned at all.  

I hope that whoever is elected on July 4 is brave enough to resist the slogans and temptation to simply respond to every crime crisis with the introduction of “tougher sentences” or more draconian laws, and instead really focus on ensuring that our criminal justice system is once again efficient and able to cope, our rehabilitation is genuinely effective and that the real causes of crime, that is poverty, poor mental health and drug use are vigorously and seriously addressed.

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