More than two decades after the Runciman Commission was set up following high-profile miscarriages of justice, the chairman of the Bar Council has called for a royal commission to conduct a root-and-branch review of the criminal justice system.
Maura McGowan suggested that the system be reviewed holistically, as the government embarks on a programme of reform to legal aid and the courts system, together with a review of legal regulation.
A full-spectrum review would create a system that works more efficiently and cheaply, while avoiding repeating the mistakes of previous reforms, she said.
In an interview with the Gazette, McGowan said the past 20 years had seen huge changes to the legal landscape – to substantive law, procedure and evidential principles, but that all the changes had just been ‘bolted on’.
‘If you do everything piecemeal you end up with things that don’t mesh,’ said McGowan.
She cited technological changes that have changed the way courts operate, but without any coherence, meaning that different IT systems are not compatible.
McGowan suggested the role and operation of the Crown Prosecution Service should be reviewed, and a single sentencing act created to reduce the number of appeals and increase transparency in the eyes of the public.
Mindful of the length of time that a royal commission might take and the government’s imperative to make savings within the current parliament, McGowan said the professions have suggested numerous changes that would generate short-term savings while the entire system is reviewed.
But she said: ‘What the Ministry of Justice is looking for is instant answers to try to save x pounds by a certain date, which will in fact not generate savings, but generate further cost and more problems for the future.’
Commenting, Law Society president Lucy Scott-Moncrieff said: ‘The Society supports the principle of undertaking reforms that look at the whole of criminal justice.
‘However, we’re working within the current boundaries of the political debate to secure the best outcome possible for the criminal justice system and our members.’
At a Bar Council Question Time event last week on the proposed legal aid cuts and introduction of price-competitive tendering, justice minister Lord McNally said he had been advised by an unnamed colleague not to ‘buckle’ to the legal profession.
He said the profession has to undergo change, although he insisted Transforming Legal Aid was a genuine consultation and all 16,000 responses would be examined.
McNally suggested that the profession should have put its house in order years ago, as the current proposals have been on the cards for a decade.
As opposition to the reforms mounts, with senior judges, including the president of the Supreme Court, voicing concern, pressure on the government is increasing.
The House of Commons Backbench Business Committee has secured a parliamentary debate on the legal aid reforms that will take place on Thursday (27 June).
Meanwhile, the Criminal Law Solicitors Association has brought forward the dates of its mass lobby of MPs to today and Wednesday 26 June. Details are at CLSA website.
As part of its inquiry into the proposals, the cross-party Justice Committee has called the justice secretary Chris Grayling to appear on 3 July.