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The currency of the criminal justice system is the people and the so-called ‘criminals’; not the funds, the pounds, or the change in the pockets of the people that run it. Tenishia Prah writes…

Most of us for the majority of our lives have lived with the pervasive narrative that the criminal justice system is at its breaking point. It is like a car trying to get to its destination with little to no fuel. We all know how that story ends. So, we find ourselves asking ‘What can we do? Who will give it more gas? Who will rescue the criminal justice system?’ For too many law students, myself included, the thrill of working in crime is often quickly quashed by the dystopian picture painted of the legal sector. It is attached to every case like a piece of evidence labelled in rad reading “warning low funding”. It is often depicted as a life support system based on the taxpayer’s money, as well as the barristers and solicitors who unfortunately for them or fortunately (if they do like the courtroom drama) have ended up having to defend or prosecute criminal cases.

Whilst not everyone may understand why people would want to work in such an area of law. There is a lot more to criminal law than we think. Why? It is overfunded. Overfunded with cases, with inefficiency issues as well as public interest. Will there ever be enough money to exchange into this currency? Will the criminal justice system ever change?

The true face of crime

The criminal justice system as we know it is formed of the courts, the barristers, the solicitors, the CPS, many law firms and chambers, and of course the main actors of the play; the criminals, the victims, and their respective families.

It is astonishing how much is demanded from the courts, the barristers, the judges, court clerks, staff, cleaners, security, solicitors, solicitor advocates, duty solicitors, paralegals, trainees, pupils, junior barristers, recorders, and more, when there is little being given to them. Yes, I have included as many of them into this sentence as is grammatically allowable in the list because they all matter. They are what keep the wheels of the criminal justice system turning. The workers are doing their very best to ensure that society has something rather than nothing, but that is not enough. The financial boogie man needs to be exposed and the relationship between law and money, right and the price tag, and truth and the bill need to be addressed.

As much as we call it a criminal justice system, crime is not isolated from society in the same way that we think criminals should be. Crime has both a multifaceted and a tree-like impact on every single aspect of law extending its branches into employment, family, housing, education, corporate and more whether we know it or not. In this way, the criminal justice ecosystem is one of the only self-sustaining systems that come from the frailties of human nature. As such it will never go broke as there will always be currency available and the value i.e., the impact will never drop like how pounds, euros, and US dollars do.

Crime has a fine tether to all these areas of law. So, either consciously or unconsciously, we try to negate and deflect the impact that crime has on these areas and focus all our attention on the “criminal”. Whilst that is, to a certain extent, understandable because nobody wants to face the realities of the things that are happening in our country, it has also meant that there is so much more power in the rhetoric of ‘the criminal justice system’ as compared to the power backing the action of those things.

It is so interesting how almost everything is valued more than the criminal justice system (in practice) however, the rhetoric stands to contend that of human rights. Whilst a problem ignored enables you to look at the good side of things temporarily, we all know what happens when we see a symptom of an illness and wait too long to go to the GP.  It has come to a point where these symptoms have overfunded the justice system to the extent that the workers are striking. Does that sound familiar? In this melting pot of tensions raging through our country, we see that the issue is not the willingness of the people, but it is the fact that the systems neither appreciate nor reflect the need for change in response to the demand. Every expansion requires an equal and opposite input to match the output.

The infirmities that the criminal justice system experiences are a universal issue and there can be numerous blog posts posted about that but unless we look at the one in the mirror, we cannot make that change in our own country.

Michael Jackson famously sang: “If you wanna make the world a better place take a look at yourself and then make a change na na na na na na”

As cliche as this sounds it is the truth and one that can only be discovered upon confrontation. You may be asking, why am I talking about this now? We are still on the back of covid and have heard about the start of the spread of monkeypox. Whether there are more important things to talk about or whether there are not more important things to think about. The criminal justice system is living and breathing, and crimes do not wait until they become a hot topic to be committed and the victims do not proactively go out to be hurt all year round. Victims are crying out for their salvation to not only come when the topic of the crime is in the season, but they are waiting for it to be in and out of season regardless of its priority on the news.

The duality of law

What makes the law (especially criminal law) difficult is that whilst it is black ink on white paper; in practice, it is often grey. Where the biggest balancing act of convicting someone for a crime they have committed and being fair to recognise the human behind the crime, go head-to-head, throwing blows above the letters of legal certainty. It is indeed a battle. A battle that extends far beyond the different arguments from the prosecution and the defence barristers and even brushes upon the core/fundamental values of society and what we all call justice.

Now justice in this context is not always easy to achieve as it may be served cold on a long sentence to a defendant or sizzling hot and fresh off the press from the mouth of the nominated spokesperson for the jury who has just delivered a ‘not guilty’ verdict. However, what is life without right and wrong and what is living without being able to exercise it? What happens now when the same principles we long to instil in children, the foundations we long to build society on are not practised. If the reality looks different from the lessons we learn, then the images will do the talking and the lessons would have been learnt and forgotten.

The courtroom is the one place where people who never thought they would be there, let alone commit a crime, have found their faces behind a Perspex glass, staring at the proceedings with dread in their eyes and sweat on their foreheads. It is also the place where certain people have edged their names into the very wood and grain of the docks by their repeat offending. Yet, it is also the place where freedom is bargained for and no longer in your own hands and no longer a commodity to be taken for granted because now there is a literal price on your head. No one ever leaves the same after being in court. No one ever leaves the same after encountering the workings of the criminal justice system.

We are all affected. Whether we like it or not, whether we are at a 2-metre distance or not and whether things change or not. I have added my rhetoric and you should add yours too. To those who have worked tirelessly on a low income, I say thank you. Thank you for not stopping and for showing up for each defendant and for every victim. Thank you is not enough but it is a start.

Overused and overburdened with the duty of delivering justice to all, the criminal justice system is in fact overfunded. Indeed, it is not the money that funds the system but the people who rely upon it. As I look forward to my further exposure to various areas of law, I am eager to listen to the words of wisdom from those who have gone before me, to learn from their experience, and to better understand the issues that lie beneath the legal sector. Yet, I will sit silently and let the issues pass. I may only be able to add rhetoric at this time and that may be your position also. But when our rhetoric falls into the hands of those in power, or in the ears of those who implement the changes then we can only hope that those words will become action.

Justice needs delivering, just not from a system that is overfunded.

Authored by Imagen Insights Gen Z consultant, Tenishia Prah