THE BLOG

Our Criminal Justice System Must Reform And Put Victims First, Fast

20/07/2017 08:50 BST | Updated 20/07/2017 09:12 BST
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During my time as Chief Crown Prosecutor and even as Chief Executive of the country's Police & Crime Commissioners, I always had a copy of the Magna Carta on my wall.

Chapter 40 of the Magna Carta says "to no one shall we deny or delay justice," and there is rightly now a focus on the denial of justice through various means including questioning the independence of judges or preventing access to lawyers and basic rights.

However, there has been little focus on the dangers from poorly-delivered justice or delayed justice. A system that prevents the vulnerable from seeking redress is bad but so is one that takes so long for the law to be enforced that it becomes meaningless. So is one where everybody except the lawyers plays a secondary role, and almost assumes the role of an after-thought.

This week's Joint Inspectorate Report on Police and Prosecutors (CPS) on handling of disclosure is appalling. What has been learnt from previous reports saying the same thing? Disclosure is not "paperwork," it's the evidence and includes that which may undermine or assist the defendant. What can be more important than knowing the case against you and what might be relevant to your defence?

This is symptomatic of a greater malaise in our Criminal Justice System. I still balk at the very word "system" because in 24 years of prosecuting I lost the battle to say "service" instead of "system." It's not semantics, it reflects a culture which is process-driven and not public-centred.

Let's talk about delay. There are, today, routinely cases where a suspect, a victim or a witness will have to wait over a year after charging before a relatively straight-forward case is resolved. Those involved in the case get minimal information and suffer increasing trauma as time passes. Then they are challenged in the trial on facts where memory has faded. Delayed justice is no justice and I can't count the number of times witnesses have told me they will never again support a prosecution.

This is most painful where the suspect, victim or witnesses are vulnerable. Many will unnecessarily delay counselling or therapy until the case concludes so they cannot be accused of altering their evidence.

In the UK judges are supposed to manage the cases through tight timetables, through incentivising early resolution and by pressuring all the parties to progress expeditiously. Why, then, does this not happen?

I'm tired of the number of times I have heard the phrase "victim-centric" or "victim-focussed justice". It's simply not true. We still tell witnesses the night before to give evidence regardless of childcare or work and we still start trials nearer noon than 9am. We still refuse to have trials after 4pm or at weekends when people might find it easier to attend court. And we await technology to improve the experience several years after it was promised.

The very best lawyers and judges share my frustration but feel unable to change things.

We cannot operate justice systems for the convenience of lawyers and judges. They're not acting in the interests of justice. They're acting for 'just us'. We cannot remain remote and unfeeling - that is not independence, that's detachment.

I readily concede there are funding pressures, there are issues of experience and training, and I am sure there are many other excuses, but that's what they are - excuses.

I have seen too many cases prosecuted that really should not have seen the light of day given the paucity of evidence but nobody seems able to say no. The system takes over: an officer facing demands that it proceeds and a prosecutor without the steel to say no or the time to consider it properly. I worry daily about the stress my former colleagues are experiencing, how they have to time-manage all their charging decisions (45 minutes or less) and then pick up the pieces afterwards.

I have seen defendants waste valuable resources waiting for the first day of a trial before changing their plea to guilty and then getting a similar sentence to that which they would have got months earlier therefore suffering no detriment. I have witnessed defence lawyers in tears because they have insufficient funds to support themselves and consequently have to cut corners.

There are, I'm afraid to say, miscarriages of justice in our courts. Both convictions of the innocent and acquittals of the guilty. How many? I don't know, but each one is shameful.

Yes, fewer of these bad prosecutions and more appropriate guilty pleas would unburden the court lists a bit. I believe, though, that the only way to change this failing culture is to shine a harsh light on it.

There is no excuse for not permitting court TV (broadcast and online) so we can all see what is done in our name. With protection for vulnerable witnesses of course, but the public galleries are no longer occupied. Your home, your tablet and your phone should be the public gallery. There is no swindle and no crooked system that doesn't live without secrecy.

But under the glare of public scrutiny I'm confident things will soon change. And they need to - fast.

Nasir Afzal is the former Chief Crown Prosecutor for the North West and former chief executive of the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners