The new Prison and Probation Ombusdman, Sue McAllister, began work this week.
The eagle-eyed Rob Allen has spotted an anomaly in this appointment: the Justice Secretary makes the appointment on the recommendation of the the Commons Justice Committee, which examines candidates in public to give assurance of some independent scrutiny. The Committee did examine McAllister, on 17 July. But it did not send a recommendation to the Secretary of State or, if it did, preferred to do so in secret – which negates the value of public scrutiny.
This may seem a bureaucratic nicety, but governance arrangements relating to appointments (and for that matter, dismissals) are there for a reason. The failure to follow them here is serious, implying a casual attitude by the Committee to its duties.
This is particularly so, as there a couple of serious question marks about McAllister's suitability.
First, she is hostile to the private sector, as a matter of ideology, as she to her credit candidly stated at the hearing: she thinks privately run prisons are plain wrong, and has condemned privatisation of probation. To my mind, this must cast doubt on the appointment. She will be arbitrating between prisoners/offenders and the private operating companies – which she thinks should not be in business at all. The Committee asked about this and were satisfied by her statement that despite her views, she would be at all time professional. Too easily satisfied, in my view. It is not, of course, a question about her integrity, but about the need for absolute impartiality to be demonstrated beyond doubt in such a role. I don't see how it can be, given her views.
Second, there is a general issue about appointing former governors (or probation managers) to such a role. Prisoners/offenders want to be assured that the post holder is completely neutral between them and the management – that is the whole point of the Ombudsman. I don't think that requirement is fully met if the post holder has spent her entire career in prison management. It can be argued that that experience is useful background to the job. But it must also raise the question whether the post holder can really be expected to see the issues entirely independently. Sometimes you need an outsider to take the robust view that what seems sensible, right and proper to prison governor isn't, in fact sensible, right and proper, to the general public.
It seems agreed that the Chief Inspector should not be an ex Governor: how is this post any different?
I have, let me say, no reason at all to question McAllister's capacity and skills. And it is a miserable thing to sound such doubts just as she starts work. Indeed: that is exactly why such issues should have been properly considered during the appointment process. Now is too late. Neither the MoJ nor the Justice Committee have done an adequate job here.
I fear there is no magic money tree for justice, so the only solution is to shrink the system: by Penelope Gibbs (reposted from LinkedIn)
A really excellent article by Penelope Gibbs on the breakdown of the courts system. So many people blog about prisons and probation, almost none about the equally serious disaster unfolding in our criminal courts. The analysis is stronger for being rooted so much in peoples' direct experience, and the prescription is unusual in offering genuinely new, genuinely practical solutions, not just shed loads of more money.
“Mags Ct today in chaos. 2 duty solicitors unable to cope because almost none of the 40+ defendants had own solicitors and all needed legal advice. There are consequences to reducing #legalaid scope and fees. Many cases adjourned to another day” @Halo_Lawyer
“Defendant appears at Mags Ct, but there’s no interpreter for him. Clerk says she won’t deal with him and will send him back to the Police Station. I query the lawfulness of this and am told this is what the regional court managers have said is to be done and it’s happened at other courts with no complaints. I point out that if they want to take that approach then I’ll expect to be quoted chapter + verse of legal basis for this – reply to that was, I’m the clerk, I don’t have to justify a decision” @neilsnds
“Two London Criminal defence firms I used to work for are about two months from going under due to the large number of people being released under investigation and due to the LAA making it a war of attrition to get PPE [pages of prosecution evidence] paid on any large Crown Court cases” @escobills
“The prison declined to bring the defendant to court because … they have spelled his name wrong on their paperwork. As we are asking for him by his actual name, it does not tally with their records. The fact that the Prison Number is the same is, it would seem, irrelevant” @ClonchFlud
“Trial adjournment application this morning in the mags. Schedule of unused [evidence] only served 2 days ago. Need to serve a defence statement. Court clerk had to be ‘guided’ to the view that this is an entitlement. Concerning” @Peter_L_Jones
“Another call today from Court to confirm tomorrow’s trial is off due to a lack of judicial/courtroom availability.3rd hearing in 2 months that I’ve had vacated the day before.Trying to explain that this is normal to clients & witnesses is never easy and it’ll only get worse” @SuffolkSolicita
“The ceiling in Court 7 at York House, Feltham, immigration tribunal fell down yesterday. All cases for that day adjourned. Cases for today supposed to be in Court 7 “floated” and then “floated out” [cancelled] at 3pm” @englishchick
“Currently prosecuting a trial with judge whose only concern is finishing so he can go on holiday next week. Outcome of every application contingent upon time it will take. We are now sitting at 09.30 every day He’s said he’ll discharge jury if we don’t finish on Friday” @F_E_Smith
“One of the biggest lessons this year has been this: Enforced speed is the enemy of justice. Dealing in bulk and getting punters in and out quickly sounds great.. but I think the public would feel safer and more confident if we were given time to read and consider” @CriminalPupil
These are just a few of the tweets I’ve seen in the last few days indicating that the courts system is coming apart at the seams. And if you search #thelawisbroken on twitter you will see hundreds more tales of lifts not working and cases adjourned. Last week I sat on a panel (organised by the South-Eastern Circuit of barristers) with Susan Acland-Hood, Chief Executive of the courts service. Around 30 lawyers chose to spend their evening giving their views on court reform, but inevitably the conversation dwelt on the kind of problems described above. I have seldom seen lawyers so frustrated and angry. Poor Susan was patient and courteous in responding, but I think even she was slightly shell-shocked by the palpable unhappiness. And by the scale of the problems – from court closures to administrative failure, from video links which don’t work to cancelled sittings.
Unfortunately I don’t think digital court reform will take us to new sunny uplands of effective courts. And before any of the reforms kick in, there is chaos to be sorted out. The only “saving grace” is that the police are investigating and the CPS prosecuting fewer crimes. So the workload in the courts is reducing. But diminished police resources means some crimes are not investigated properly, and disclosure is bungled.
The wise words of @criminalpupil that enforced speed is the enemy of justice I think provides part of the answer. There is no magic money tree for justice. There should be, but health, education and social care will always get priority when there is any money to spare. The only way of giving all court cases the time they deserve and getting enough money for the courts is to shrink the criminal justice system. Lets decriminalise lots of minor offences like possession of cannabis and non-payment of a TV licence. Lets divert a lot of low level cases away from court via out of court disposals, deferred prosecution and well facilitated restorative justice. Lets reduce the number of remand hearings by remanding fewer defendants. Lets have a moratorium on the creation of any new offences. If we shrunk the system, we might have some chance of paying lawyers a fair wage for their work, and of giving the cases in the courts the time they deserve – which would mean not delaying them because of a shortage of judges, nor rushing them through when they are actually heard.
Pie in the sky you think, but actually we have a home-grown case study. In England and Wales, we have shrunk the youth justice system considerably. There are fewer prosecutions, fewer first time entrants and fewer getting any kind of formal criminal justice disposal than ten years ago, and the child custody population has shrunk by two-thirds. Despite the recent media coverage of serious youth violence, there is no evidence that the shrinking of the system has led to an increase in youth crime (the number of proven offences has fallen by 75% in ten years). Overall the shrinking of the youth justice system has led to fewer children being criminalised and to the remaining money going further. I would shrink the system even more through raising the age of criminal responsibility and raising the prosecution threshold, but I feel the shrinkage so far has been positive. And it has, for the most part. been tolerated by politicians and the public. So lets try shrinking the adult system so the money available might possibly be sufficient.
I was formerly Finance Director of the Prison Service and then Director of the National Offender Management Service responsible for competition. I also worked in the NHS and an IT company. I later worked for two outsourcing companies.
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