Access to justice is under threat due to government reforms and cuts. The legal aid budget has been cut leaving thousands of people without access to advice and representation. Police stations up and down the country are closing, while neighbourhood policing is cut back and volunteers are being recruited to carry out the work of some trained professionals. The probation service has been broken up and part privatised, even though it was rated ‘exceptional’ or ‘good’ under the public sector. Prisons are overcrowded, violence is on the increase, and many prisoners are unable to access rehabilitation programmes, training and education due to cuts and staff shortages. Over 140 courts were closed in the last parliament, and another 91 face closure – affecting access to local justice for all.
Profiting from justice
Since 2010, government reforms have promoted an expanding role for the private sector in our justice system. However, justice is a public service, not a business, and private companies’ primary responsibilities are to their shareholders, not to citizens. Increasingly, justice services are being concentrated in the hands of a small group of large multinationals, which cherry-pick profitable areas, leaving the public sector to deal with the difficult and costly cases. The conditions of public service workers invariably suffer while high-profile project failures are bailed out by the taxpayer. Evidence suggests that taxpayers are already getting very bad value for money – with the Public Accounts Committee stating that the government needed to “get its house in order over private contractor failures”.
G4S and Serco, major players in the ‘justice market’, have been investigated by the Serious Fraud Office for overcharging the government and paid back nearly £200m. Lack of transparency and accountability are built into the market system: when G4S and Serco withdrew from bidding for electronic monitoring contracts, Capita gained the contract by default.
Cuts to justice
A transparent and effective justice system requires proper funding, yet the Ministry of Justice faced £2bn in cuts, 23 per cent of its total budget in the last parliament, and another £249m in cuts in 2015-2016. As well as impacts on services and access to justice, thousands of justice sector jobs have been lost – and with them the valuable skills and expertise that help ensure justice is delivered fairly and effectively for victims, citizens, taxpayers and the wider community.
“Some would say that with such dramatic reduction [in expenditure], our system will break. But that cannot be permitted. If it breaks we lose more than courts, tribunals, lawyers and judges. We lose our ability to function as a liberal democracy capable of prospering on the world stage, whilst securing the rule of law and prosperity at home.”
Lord Chief justice, Lord Thomas.