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Home » Elections and Governance

The UK Government is not Delivering on Justice Reforms: the Time is Ripe for its Devolution to Wales

Submitted by on 13 Sep 2011 – 16:18

Rt Hon Elfyn Llwyd MPBy Rt Hon Elfyn Llwyd MP, Plaid Cymru’s Westminster Leader and the Member of Parliament for Dwyfor Meirionnydd

There are growing concerns from all directions about the UK Government’s “cut now, pay the price later” attempts at justice reform.

We’ve seen a u-turn on Ken Clarke’s plans to halve sentences for early guilty pleas, backtracking on the Conservative’s pre-election pledge to jail anyone found carrying a knife, half-baked plans for elected police commissioners, and the Justice Secretary’s now infamous remarks about defining ‘serious’ rape. But it is not even the internal confusion within the government over policy that is the most serious threat to our justice system.

Most worrying of all are the devastatingly deep cuts set to be implemented. These will hit vital services and put cost-cutting ahead of effective and fair justice. Legal aid, prison and court costs are all in the line of fire. We risk finances being prioritised over the implementation of law. A leaked document last year from the Ministry of Justice suggested 14,000 jobs might be lost. Losses of that number would seriously impact on the delivery and service of the system, and without necessarily cutting prisoner numbers.

Cuts to Legal Aid

The Ministry of Justice’s proposed reform of Legal Aid is at risk of becoming an unmitigated disaster. Facing a cut in its budget of around £450million a year, it is destined to have a brutal impact on the most disadvantaged in our legal system, depriving them of essential support and advice, and lumbering substantial legal costs on them.

It is the most vulnerable who would suffer. Due to these cuts, ancillary cases, such as child custody and maintenance, will not be dealt with properly, with potentially devastating effects on the children caught up in ‘untidy’ disputes. Plus vulnerable clients, such as those with mental health problems, will now struggle to access free legal advice.

The government has pledged to keep legal aid available for victims of domestic violence, but it is very narrow in its definition and fails to acknowledge other forms of abuse such as psychological, financial and emotional.

Far from reforming the system, it risks undermining the very principles of the justice system itself, which is that of a fair representation for all.

We must protect these services – otherwise it is those in greatest need who will suffer.

Court closures

In the last year we have suffered the double blow of facing court closures in Wales under the Government’s proposals to cut costs, as well as having essential investment ruled out.

Local justice is under serious threat. Take the Pwllheli magistrates’ court in my rural constituency. It is one of several across Wales closing its doors.

This is going to leave us with the frankly ridiculous prospect of the second largest constituency in Wales having just one magistrates’ court. It will mean defendants and witnesses having to travel substantially longer distances to attend court, and as I have previously pointed out, increases the possibility of witness intimidation. The Lord Chief Justice himself and almost everyone with an understanding of the area’s justice system have strongly opposed the plans.

Not only this, but proposed investment for building the north Wales prison has now been lost too. It is a bitter blow, not only to an economy which would have dearly welcomed the extra jobs created, but also a bitter blow to prisoners and their families. It is of vital importance, something I feel is a basic right, that we ensure that as many of those incarcerated as possible can be in close proximity to their families and communities, as this plays an important role in their rehabilitation. Planned closure of the nearest prison in Shrewsbury, already far away from north Wales, would only exacerbate this further.

Stalking inquiry

As well as challenging some of the devastating cuts planned by the government, however, we have also made important progress ourselves in the field of civil liberties. We recently established the first ever independent inquiry into stalking of which I am chair.

Stalking, and especially the trend of ‘cyber-stalking’, is an area of growing importance and where there is widespread concern that the law does not define, treat or take it seriously. Last year, 53,000 incidents of stalking and harassment were recorded by police, but only 2.2% of these resulted in a custodial sentence. Our cross-party investigation is a crucial step towards recognising and dealing with the problem, and protecting the civil liberties of our citizens.

Devolution of policing and justice

As Wales enters a new era of devolution so is a distinct body of ‘Welsh law’. We have legislated in Wales on issues that define us differently from over the border. Many commentators are already pointing towards the need for a Welsh justice system as a result – in fact it is almost inevitable if we are to legislate then surely we must have Welsh legal experts.

This means that it is imperative that we look to devolve policing and judicial responsibility. Opinion polls conducted before and after the referendum on law-making powers on March 3rd this year in Wales have showed strong public support for this.

Ill-judged and damaging cuts from the Westminster Government will continue to hurt our communities, and the longer they drag their feet on addressing issues such as stalking, offending rates and prisoner rehabilitation, where considerable work still needs to be done, the worse the situation gets. We need to continue to push for the devolution of these powers, and make sure that our police and justice systems are properly funded and effective.