Promises, promises

Promises, promises

When the coalition came in they made a refreshing start by throwing out some of Labour’s worst excesses on civil liberties. Together the two parties saw off the kneejerk demand for 42 days’ pre-charge detention, prefiguring the later coalition partnership which did, for a time, seem to have at least some feel for freedom. ID cards were abandoned, DNA samples of innocent citizens were destroyed, and – with Ken Clarke at the Ministry of Justice – there was an overdue attempt to challenge mass incarceration.

But then the realities of government kicked in and with it a radical change of direction, including proposals to modernise the capability of the police and security services to track internet and mobile phone use. They are just as bad as the last lot.

Britain leads the world in the use of CCTV and has a larger DNA base and more police powers and email snooping than any comparable liberal democracy. Abuse of stop and search remains unchecked. Secret hearings, known as closed material procedures (CMPs), have been introduced into the main civil courts in England and Wales.

The general election manifestos, which are really little more than wish lists, are now in and the ‘Law Gazette’ has done us all a favour with a summary of their headline pledges on law and justice.

The Greens are the only mainstream party pledging wholly to reverse the coalition’s legal aid cuts. On civil liberties, the Greens support “a world of open, freely flowing information” and want to establish a comprehensive Digital Bill of Rights.
Apart from a pledge “to ensure victims of domestic violence get the legal support they need to break free of violent relationships,” Labour’s manifesto has relatively little to say on legal aid and access to justice. The party had, however, already pledged to abandon “reckless” two-tier contracting for criminal legal aid and repeal judicial review reforms.

The Lib Dems pledge to carry out an immediate review of civil legal aid, judicial review and court fees, in consultation with the judiciary. On criminal legal aid, the Lib Dems promise “no further cuts” without an impact assessment of “the viability of a competitive and diverse market of legal aid providers.” They will ensure legal aid is available to all those who need it; those of “modest means” can bring applications for JR; and that court and tribunal fees do not put justice beyond the reach of those in need.

UKIP does not mention legal aid at all, while the Conservatives commit only to “continue to review our legal aid systems.”.Both parties are comfortable with crime and justice defined for populist purposes as victims’ rights and bobbies on the beat. Both would scrap the Human Rights Act and introduce a British Bill of Rights, making the UK Supreme Court the ultimate arbiter of human rights in the UK.

In criminal law, the Conservatives will “speed up justice” by extending the use of police-led prosecutions. New communications data legislation will “strengthen” the ability of the authorities to disrupt terrorist plots, criminal networks and child-grooming gangs.

So-called ‘Extremism Disruption Orders’ will allow the security services new powers to prevent those seeking to radicalise others from using the internet or communicating through social media.

Deep legal aid cuts threaten to render rights notional for those without the means to enforce them – to leave English justice “open to all” only in the same sense as the Ritz. We are stuck with an almost unanimously illiberal legislature. King John would be green with envy considering how much he had to concede at Runnymede.

This post was written by:

- who has written 462 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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