Categorized | Law Updates, Legal Aid

Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill (part 1)

Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill (part 1)

Twelve months ago in the Rose Garden we were promised a coalition government guided by progressive values and reason. Justice secretary Ken Clarke seemed to have been so guided, with a green paper setting out a rehabilitative revolution in penal reform, driven by the prohibitive human and financial cost of the current regime. After the Prime Minister’s rewriting of this bill that rehabilitative revolution lies in ruins.

The way it happened on Tuesday is as noteworthy as what happened. It is, to say the least, unusual for the introduction and first reading of a major bill to be prefaced – and thoroughly upstaged – by a Prime Ministerial press conference. Having backed the Clarke plans in private, he emerged to trash them in public as the justice secretary was forced by Downing Street to ditch more than 60% of his original proposals. In a brief exchange in the Commons debate, Ken Clarke confirmed that: “The proposals that I presented for consultation and the Green Paper were the proposals of the Prime Minister, the whole Cabinet and I.” The craven capitulation that followed was caused by the outcry from the Tory right and the tabloid press, and falling poll ratings on law and order. David Cameron defended his actions thus: “It is absolutely vital that the public have confidence in a criminal justice system that the state puts in place. Public confidence is not a side issue in this debate. It is the issue.”

The headline policy reversal was the complete abandonment of the proposed 50% sentence discount for guilty pleas, now deemed “too lenient”. Going beyond the scope of the current bill in some cases, the Prime Minister announced plans to impose a surprise tough “two strikes and you’re out” mandatory life sentence. He also announced that anyone guilty of a sexual or violent offence would spend two-thirds of the sentence in prison, rather than the current half.  The justice secretary has also quietly dropped his original plan to restore the discretion of judges on sentencing, which had proposed the scrapping of David Blunkett’s minimum mandatory sentences. A Ministry of Justice impact assessment estimates the redrawn sentencing package will save just 2,650 prison places each year – or £80m – compared with the original 6,450 and £210m saving. So there is a shortfall to be found, and probation looks vulnerable.

Speaking in the Commons, Clarke said: “Public confidence in the criminal justice system is unacceptably low. That is why we want to take forward plans for a new offence, with a mandatory minimum prison sentence of six months, for adults who use a knife to threaten and endanger. We will also consult on proposals to criminalise squatting, and we will bring forward legislation to clarify the law on self-defence. In addition, I can confirm our intention to improve the use of remand and reduce the number of foreign national prisoners in our jails….We are reviewing so-called indeterminate sentences of imprisonment for public protection, with a view to replacing them with a more sensible, tough system of long, determinate sentences.”

Curiously unremarked is clause 12 of the bill. This introduces an “interests of justice test” for police station advice. At the moment, anyone is entitled to free advice in the police station if they are arrested. For minor cases they get only telephone advice, for more major cases they get a lawyer in the police station for any interview. Clause 12 appears to say that advice in the police station will only be available if the Government decides in the individual case that it is in the interests of justice to do so, and there would also seem to be a financial barrier to negotiate. The role of “Director” in this context will be crucial. At best this will be a bureaucratic nightmare, at worst it creates scope for official abuse. Not a good day for Magna Carta or Human Rights legislation.

This post was written by:

- who has written 460 posts on Upper Case – The Anya Legal Journal.

Mike Gribbin is a retired Civil Servant with wide experience, including the drafting and implementation of Parliamentary legislation and regulations. He is the editor of “Criminal Offences Handbook”, a uniquely comprehensive guide to more than one thousand ways to fall foul of UK criminal law. He is Editor of the Upper Case Legal Journal and has been writing blog posts for the past eight years.

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