The Justice Service evolved out of the services that were held at the beginning of each Assizes, so that we might pray for the judges to be blessed with wisdom and good judgment in their deliberations. You don’t have to go very far back to reach the days when the High Sheriff and his chaplain attended at least the first week of the Assizes, and every day of any capital trials. Indeed one of the chaplain’s duties was to say ‘Amen’ after the judge had pronounced sentence of death.
All this disappeared with the abolition of the Assizes in 1972 and the creation of the present Crown Court, which sits all the year round. Instead, most counties now hold an annual service for the judiciary, usually at the beginning of the legal year in October, a practice established in Essex by the then High Sheriff, Lt-Col R. G. Judd, in 1974.
Now that High Sheriffs are no longer expected to provide javelin men for the physical protection of visiting judges, we have to find other ways of fulfilling one of our stated roles, which is to support the judiciary. The Justice Service is one way of doing this, by making our judges and magistrates realise that they are much-appreciated members of the community of Essex. To put it in more touch-feely terms, I wanted to make them feel loved, because I know the judiciary and the legal profession do not feel particularly loved at the moment.
The courts system has suffered enormously from cuts in recent years. It’s not a sector that attracts much public sympathy, given the public perception that judges are enemies of the people, barristers are notoriously overpaid, and legal aid benefits only criminals and the occasional high-profile wealthy foreigner. It doesn’t help that the judiciary are not given to grumbling in public, although I can’t help noticing that retired senior judges (in one case, that of Sir Brian Leveson, not even quite retired, but on the eve of doing so) seem to be queuing up to point out the dangers society is facing as a result of funding cuts in general and the withdrawal of legal aid in particular. The Times reported recently a judge saying in open court that the system is breaking at every point: ‘Everywhere you look, our justice system is beginning to be not fit for purpose. Slow justice is bad justice.’ It’s no wonder that in some counties of England, including neighbouring Suffolk, there are no criminal law solicitors under the age of 35.
Last November I must have had a bit too much time on my hands, because I watched the Lord Chief Justice giving evidence to the Justice Select Committee. ‘There are buildings all over the country,’ he said, ‘that were put up in the 70s and 80s in particular… their roofs are leaking, as often as not; their lifts are broken; their air conditioning and heating systems work intermittently… [T]here is a very substantial amount of money that needs to be spent.’ Substitute a non-functioning security gate for the leaking roof and he might have been describing the magistrates’ courts here in Chelmsford – a building opened not in the 70s or 80s, but in 2012. This August, Saturday remand courts were moved to Colchester because the cells in Chelmsford had to be closed ‘under a national protocol relating to high temperatures’, which is official jargon for ‘the air con still isn’t working’. No doubt we all have similar tales to tell.
I am sure we all welcome the promise of 20,000 new police officers; some of us are less convinced about the creation of 10,000 new prison places as being the answer to the problems that that system faces, even if they really are new places and not the same 10,000 places that were announced in 2016 but which never materialised. Overcrowding is certainly a problem, and previous suggestions for dealing with that – early release, ending of sentences of six months or less – seem to have been dropped. But in all the rush to lock people more people up for longer we must not overlook the desirability of providing more staff and better conditions in existing prisons, the need to prepare prisoners better for release, and above all to ensure that when they are released they have suitable accommodation to go to, which 40 per cent of those leaving Chelmsford Prison do not. And there has to be a better way of dealing with our women offenders than sending them to a prison a hundred miles away from their home and family.
And someone seems to have overlooked the fact that between 20,000 new police officers and 10,000 new prison places there is a process, a rather crucial one at that, namely what takes place in the courts, Even reinstating some of the cuts inflicted on the CPS in recent years will not make up for the lack of funding of the courts service. We can all readily appreciate the need for good schools and good hospitals, because we have all been to school, many of us will have children to educate, and we can all expect to need to go to hospital sooner or later. So we want out schools and hospitals to be the very best. But most people go through life not expecting to go to prison, or to have anything to do with the criminal justice system, beyond perhaps a spell of jury service. Yet any one of us could find ourselves, tomorrow, in urgent need of legal representation, as a victim of crime, or as someone wrongly accused, and how glad we will be then of a well-funded, fully functioning criminal justice system. And I haven’t even mentioned the ever-increasing workload of the Family Courts, where the withdrawal of legal aid has had equally damaging consequences.
The Justice Service is an opportunity for the judiciary at all levels to come together and to celebrate their place in the community: for without our brilliant judiciary, whose wisdom and humanity set a standard for the rest of the world, the way of life that most of us enjoy in this country simply would not exist. And events of the past few weeks, which are still unfolding, have shown how the rule of law, guarded by a wise and independent judiciary, is as important as ever.