When the 2017 general election was announced, the Prisons and Courts Bill (despite reaching committee stage in the House of Commons) could not be passed before parliament was dissolved on 3 May. Much to the surprise of many (and intense disappointment of Chief Prison Inspector Peter Clarke), the Bill was then dropped from the Queen’s Speech on 21 June 2017 with the government promising to bring forward new legislation solely on court modernisation.
What the Prisons and Courts Bill covers
Justice Secretary Liz Truss today (23 February 2017) published the Prisons and Courts Bill (2017) which covers four main areas:
- Prison safety and reform – What is described as a new framework and clear system of accountability for prisons. It will enshrine into law that a key purpose of prison is to reform and rehabilitate offenders, as well as punish them for the crimes they have committed.
- Court reform – Measures relating to courts underline a commitment to victims and the most vulnerable, as well as improving the system for those who use it every day by digitisation.
- The judiciary – The bill seeks to provide a better working environment for judges, with modern court facilities and better IT that will help manage cases more efficiently.
- Whiplash compensation – There will be new fixed tariffs capping whiplash compensation pay-outs and a ban on claims without medical evidence which, the MoJ,claims will reduce care insurance premiums.
This post looks at the first two areas in more detail. You can see the official published version of the Bill here.
Prison safety and reform
The Prisons and Courts Bill is designed to underpin measures in the recently published Prison Safety and Reform White Paper, and provide the legal basis for the government’s prison reform programme.
It sets in law for the first time that a key purpose of prisons is to reform offenders, as well as punish them for the crimes they have committed. The actual text for this provision is:
In giving effect to sentences or orders of imprisonment or detention
imposed by courts, prisons must aim to—
(a) protect the public,
(b) reform and rehabilitate offenders,
(c) prepare prisoners for life outside prison, and
(d) maintain an environment that is safe and secure.
Interestingly, only three of 72 sections of the Bill are concerned with prison reform (one on the purpose of prisons and role of Secretary of State; one on new powers and responsibilities for the prison inspectorate and one on “minor and consequential amendments to Prison Act 1952”). There are a further seventeen sections on the role of the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman and two on prison security which include powers to do mandatory drug tests for psychoactive substances.
The MoJ press release repeats the pledge of governor autonomy:
Governors will take control of budgets for education, employment and health and they will be held to account for getting people off drugs, into jobs and learning English and maths. Data for league tables detailing how prisons are performing in these areas will be publicly available from August 2017.
However, there is no detail on any of this in the Bill.
The MoJ press release also emphasises that more than 2,000 new senior positions are being created for “our valued and experienced officers” to be promoted into. These posts, which include specialist mental health training, will have a salary of up to £30,000.
The MoJ emphasies that victims and vulnerable witnesses are also central to the Prisons and Courts Bill, with a range of measures that will bolster their protection in court.
The government is giving courts the power to put an end to domestic violence victims being quizzed by their attackers in the family courts. Much of this section of the Bill focuses on improving courts’ effectiveness by modernising and introducing online capacity.
The use of virtual hearings will be extended, allowing victims to take part without running the risk of coming face-to-face with their assailant. Many hearings, such as bail applications, will be resolved via video or telephone conferencing, allowing justice to be delivered more swiftly.
Offenders charged with some less serious criminal offences, such as failure to produce a ticket for travel on a train, will be able to
- plead guilty online
- accept a conviction
- be issued a penalty and
- pay that penalty there and then.
I’m no expert on legislation but, as far as I can see, although the duty on prisons to rehabilitate is a profound one, there is little further detail about the prison reform process in the Bill. However, Liz Truss did issue a written ministerial statement providing additional detail on new performance indicators for which governors, with their new devolved powers, will be responsible. [My summary here.]
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