In the Media

Criminal justice in chaos, admits Lord Chancellor

PUBLISHED November 8, 2006

PARTS of the criminal justice system are in ?general chaos?, the Lord Chancellor admitted at the weekend.

His comments, at the Bar?s annual conference in London sponsored by The Times, came during a light-hearted panel discussion attended by several hundred barristers. Lord Falconer of Thoroton qualified his comments. But political opponents said that his frank use of language confirmed that the Government?s law and order policies had failed.

Lord Falconer was responding to a suggestion from a barrister, Edward Grayson, that there was poor communication between police, prosecutors and courts? legal advisers. ?There is general chaos in a number of cases,? he told the event, immediately adding: ?Not in all cases and it is getting better. We all need to try and make it better.?

Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: ?Finally a government minister has admitted what has been widely suspected for some time. Ten years of tough talk from Tony Blair and his home secretaries have led to systematic operational incompetence throughout our criminal justice system. Overflowing prisons, heightened public fear of crime and some of the highest reoffending rates in the Western world are the legacy of this Government?s shameless populism on law and order.?

Norman Brennan, director of the Victims of Crime Trust and a serving police officer, said that the Lord Chancellor?s honesty was amazing. ?At last the Government has no alternative but to admit what is blatantly obvious and that is that the criminal justice system is chaos. The public have lost confidence in the criminal justice system, so have the police, and so have the victims of crime.? 
At the same meeting, Lord Justice Judge, the deputy Lord Chief Justice, called for an end to costly long trials and the abuse of rules on disclosure of evidence. ?I don?t see how we can go on with a system that takes months and months on end,? he said. Barristers should ask whether trials of such length were justified or whether the country could afford them.

The judge, the most senior in the criminal justice system below the Lord Chief Justice, also expressed concerns about barristers who acted as mouthpieces for their clients.

Too many defence counsel stand up and ?mouth absolute stupidity on the basis of their client?s instructions?, he said. Acting in that way did not square with the need for counsel to be independent.

In addition, barristers were now expected to spend more time meeting clients and were judged by solicitors on their social skills with the client. But the message had to be heard by solicitors that clients did not tell barristers how to run a case, Lord Justice Judge said.

He went on to express concern at how some barristers misused disclosed material to attack the system itself. ?What should be under attack is the evidence presented by the Crown.? Judges, he said, were now required not just to be referees but to be interventionist. ?The profession must respond.?