Criminal justice system ‘far worse than the figures show,’ UK Bar Council chair says

Official figures “just the tip of an iceberg,” Richard Atkins QC says

The UK’s Bar Council has warned that the state of the criminal justice system is even bleaker than the picture painted by quarterly figures recently released by the Ministry of Justice.

Despite crimes increasing, the number of people prosecuted or handed out-of-court disposals has fallen to the lowest level ever, the data showed. Crime reported in England and Wales increased 8% to 5.9 million in the year ending March. The number prosecuted or handed penalties for crimes in the jurisdiction dropped 2% to 1.59 million in the same period.

“These statistics make for grim reading; however, the state of the criminal justice system is far worse than the figures show. The commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service said recently that ‘overall police [crime] detection rates nationally are woefully low’ and that the ‘courts are emptying, not filling.’ If crime is not detected, it cannot be recorded, investigated or prosecuted, so the official figures are just the tip of an iceberg. Criminals are going about their business unchallenged: fraud goes virtually unpunished and is not even included in the statistics,” said Richard Atkins QC, chair of the Bar Council.

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He said that while the recent focus on the state of the criminal justice system by the government, as well as additional resources, is welcome, “the whole system is broken or breaking.” He said that the focus needs to be on every part of the system, including Legal Aid and access to legal representation, prosecution, courts, forensic science, probation, as well as police and prisons. Funding for the Ministry of Justice was cut 27% from 2008 to 2018.

Atkins said that the council, MPs, senior judges, and others have been urging the reversal of “draconian cuts to the justice budget,” which he described as “the steepest cuts to any public service.”

“Our democracy, society and our economy depend on a properly functioning, fair, justice system, that the public can have faith in. Sadly we fear that this is no longer the case,” he said. “Criminals up and down the country will be rubbing their hands with glee knowing that even if their crimes are detected and they are caught by the police, the chances of them being prosecuted or jailed are slim.”

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