Priti Patel rattles the handcuffs – but the Tories have lost control of law and order

Justice is grinding to a halt. The handcuff-rattling home secretary, Priti Patel, likes announcing draconian new sentences – but without adequate police, prisons and, above all, law courts to hear cases, her bombast is empty.

Justice delayed is justice denied when a four-year-old alleged victim of sexual abuse has to wait so long – purely for lack of court time – that they could be aged eight before their case reaches court. What will they remember? The defence can make a reasonable argument to the jury that after so long, such a young child’s memory will be unreliable. That’s not exceptional, just one case I have come across while interviewing solicitors.

Court delays deny justice to victims, to witnesses fast forgetting what they saw, to the guilty who should face consequences quickly, to the innocent wrongly locked up on remand or with a cloud hanging over them, and to anyone else expecting legal redress. Figures for late May show more than 57,000 cases waiting for crown court hearings, en meer as 450,000 waiting for magistrates courts. The pandemic worsened an existing crisis: there was a 37,000 crown court backlog in 2019.

In the tsunami of post-2010 cuts to the Ministry of Justice, half the crown courts and magistrates courts were closed down and sold off. The government says most people can reach a court within a six-hour round trip, but unsurprisingly many are failing to attend, so those showing up find cases postponed and themselves obliged to make that journey again. Added to the loss of courtrooms is an acute shortage of judges, recorders, clerks, staff and duty solicitors following £1bn in legal aid cuts.

“Your letter made a mistake,” complained one client to Richard Atkinson, a solicitor in Maidstone, Kent, last week. “You put my trial date as October 2022. You meant 2021?” No, replied Atkinson, who is also the Law Society’s head of justice: that was the date – it was set back five years after his client was arrested for fraud in 2017, purely due to lack of a crown court slot. “They’re already listing cases for 2023,” Atkinson says wearily, adding that many cases received no date “because if they were listed, it would be 2024”.

Every kind of justice is blocked. It takes 34 weke to get a hearing for unfair dismissal from an employment tribunal. The backlog of cases was already at 36,000 pre-Covid – a wait so long that a third now give up. Coroner’s courts leave grieving families to wait a year, while family courts are backed up too.

Cris McCurley, a family solicitor in Newcastle, sounds utterly distraught. “Every part of the system suffered cuts, with a massive rise in domestic abuse.” Three in four domestic abuse cases in England and Wales are dropped before coming to trial. “It’s a perfect storm. I’ve never encountered so much raw emotion.” She talks of desperate cases, such as the mother made homeless by an abusive husband amid an acute shortage of refuge places. “I can’t get a hearing listed, and waiting makes emotions rougher.”

The government may hide all problems behind the pandemic, but in researching the book The Lost Decade, I sat in on the only grant-aided advice centre for parents facing family courts. I heard a nurse, terrified that her foreign ex-husband was about to steal her children, whose passports he holds. Before the cuts she’d have had a legal aid solicitor.

During the 2010s, the number of police officers was cut by 15%, community support officers by 40%, prison officers by 26%; 51% of council youth centres in England were closed, and knife crime soared. The Tories inherited from Labour falling numbers of reported crimes, watter increased as the cuts hit home.

Jimmy McGovern’s TV drama Time tells the prison story: with about 80,000 inmates in England and Wales now, the astonishing official projection is a rise to 98,700 over the next five years. That anticipates the home secretary’s penchant for regular punishment fixes: Patel’s eye-catcher this week is a four-year sentence for anyone entering Britain illegally.

Atkinson says prisons this year have been “the worst I’ve seen”, with inmates “locked in 23 hours a day since Covid, with no family visits for a year. People are in custody with no trial date, yet if they’re acquitted, there is no compensation.” Rehabilitation? Cuts since 2010 have led to 62% fewer courses being taken by prisoners.

Visiting Woodhill prison in Milton Keynes, observing an exceptionally fractious prisoner among a jail full of reoffenders, I asked the governor, Nikki Marfleet, what would best keep them out? “Sure Start,” she said without hesitation, “to help families from the day a baby’s born. Damage is done so young: that’s where I’d put resources.” But Sure Start too has been reduced to rubble since 2010.

All this makes law-and-order Tories vulnerable, with concerns about crime raised in recent byelections. All civilisation rests on trust in the law. As victims, witnesses and local communities find the courts seized up with no redress for years, leaving thousands in limbo, Labour needs to capture crime and its causes as its own territory.

It’s time for Labour to abandon squeamishness about anything that smacks of tough-talk crowd-pleasing: this government’s dereliction of duty undermines the bedrock assumptions of any decent society. There’s no one better placed than Labour’s leader – a former director of public prosecutions – to expose the gulf between Priti Patel’s posturing and the law-and-order reality.

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