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Problem-solving courts and Truss’s new tough on crime agenda

Is another politically ambitious justice secretary preparing for a grandstand appearance at the next Tory party conference, wonders Jonathan Black

22 August 2016

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Last weekend the Guardian reported that one of the first moves by Justice Secretary Liz Truss is to rein in proposals to introduce 'problem-solving courts'. The brainchild of her predecessor, Michael Gove, it is said Truss feels that such a scheme would be seen as 'soft' on offenders who ought to be imprisoned.

The legal profession did not greet Gove's fact-finding tour of Texas with much enthusiasm. Some said it was an unnecessary use of ministerial funds to establish what we knew already, others proclaimed that it had been tried and tested in England and Wales without success, while there were also suggestions that the self-interest of lawyers meant that recidivism was a necessary evil to keep them in business.

The reality is that such a scheme had been run at West London Magistrates Court in the early part of this century, where the now retired DJ Justin Philips became known for his hands on approach to encouraging progressive rehabilitation.

Having committed the expense of Gove and his entourage on their fact-finding mission, it now seems that such a scheme is no longer politically desirable and not fitting with the new tough on crime, but not tough on the causes of crime, agenda; an agenda drafted by Daily Mail editors.

Some may say the programme to privatise the prison service is incompatible with a scheme of problem solving and diversion form the prison estate, given that profit will be dependent upon cell occupancy.

The privatisation of the probation service is already proving a disaster as the new organisations are cutting staff and replacing them with cash machine kiosks, allowing offenders to check in electronically. Probation staff complain of the dumbing down of their roles as they are no longer allowed to provide the continuity of relationship to long term clients.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) audit of Sodexo found alarming gaps in terms of safe guarding information, recording appointments, and supervising offenders. The language is no longer about rehabilitation but public safety. This is language that will allow Truss to grin at the old faithful at the next Tory party conference as if she had replaced the word 'cheese' with 'criminal'.

The MoJ's response to the rumour was that: 'We will be moving forward with problem-solving courts. We have one of the best legal systems in the world and are investing over £700m to reform and digitise our courts to deliver swifter justice.'

I am not quite sure what the digitalisation reform has to do with problem-solving courts, unless the author of the quote has misunderstood that a 'problem-solving court' is and not where online Suduko is played. However, as legal professionals, day in and day out we see the impact of the failure to resolve our clients' issues.

The misery of the revolving door is there for all to see, with persistent offenders receiving short-term sentences only to be returned to custody within days of release. We must play a role in arguing that the continued incarceration and processing of these offenders might be welcomed by the shareholders of G4S but is, in both the short and long term, detrimental to the MoJ's budget. I hope we don't see yet another politically ambitious justice secretary grandstand for the sake of an impact at the next party conference.

Jonathan Black is immediate past president of the LCCSA and a partner at BSB Solicitors @bsbsolicitors

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Procedures Courts & Judiciary