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Criminal justice systems in the UK
The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies provides an encyclopaedic definition of the UK criminal justice systems and their governance, inspection, complaints systems and accountability.

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Three systems

The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies has today (10 August 2022) published an invaluable new resource which many people working in criminal justice across the UK will want to download and keep as a handy reference document. Written by Richard Garside and Roger Grimshaw from the CCJS (and, fascinatingly funded by the Foreign Office), the guide provides a comprehensive overview of the three justice systems in the UK (England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland). 

The guide “Criminal Justice Systems in the UK” is divided into four sections, each one dealing with one major CJS agency: police, prosecution, courts and prisons. For each agency the report focuses on four key mechanisms: governance and inspection (broadly corresponding with the governmental agenda); complaints and citizen accountability (emphasising the citizens’ perspective). Probation people will be disappointed to know that neither probation nor parole feature in the guide.

I had intended to skim the document but quickly found myself reading the whole thing. The guide is full of fascinating nuggets of information, some half-remembered, some entirely new, as the guide traces the evolution of the different parts of our systems and exposes the major differences between the systems in the different nations which make up the UK. The guide picks out key turning points in the development of our justice systems including the Good Friday agreement which promoted the complete reorganisation of policing in Northern Ireland and the Macpherson report on the police response to the death of Stephen Lawrence which resulted in an independent police complaints system.

Compare and contrast

Here are some of the key differences between our countries:

  • Single national police forces, accountable to political appointees, in Scotland and Northern Ireland, contrast with a patchwork of local forces in England and Wales, accountable to elected police and crime commissioners.
  • The police in Scotland, England and Wales handle most complaints against officers, while complaints against the police in Northern Ireland are all handled by an external body.
  • The per capita prison population in Northern Ireland is around half that in Scotland, and England and Wales.

Things you didn’t know?

The guide is full of detail and clear definitions of terms and processes that you  have probably heard of but weren’t sure exactly how they operated. Well, that was the case for me, anyway. Here are my examples:

Fraud

The City of London Police is the national lead force for fraud, and is responsible for Action Fraud and the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau. Its operations are linked to the Joint Fraud Taskforce, a partnership which includes government, industry, regulators, other law enforcement agencies and overseas organisations.

Super complaints

In 2017 a system of ‘super complaints’ was created in England and Wales which enables non-governmental organisations to pursue broad claims against the police. The system is administered by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary. The guide includes the 2019 example of Hestia, a charity providing crisis support, which submitted a super-complaint on modern slavery, claiming that many victims were not receiving the appropriate level of service and support by non- specialist police officers. The super-complaint was supported by the Victims’ Commissioner. A report on their investigation, with recommendations, was issued in May 2021.

Private prosecutions

Alongside the official prosecution authorities, other organisations also have the right to prosecute  criminal cases, particularly in England and Wales. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Royal Mail, for instance, pursue private prosecutions, using the right of any individual to bring a private prosecution. A long-running scandal, involving the wrongful conviction of post office workers, has reopened debate about the power of private prosecution in England and Wales. The post office workers were wrongly subject to private prosecutions for fraud by the Post Office and the Justice Committee highlighted the disproportionate use of private prosecutions by wealthy organisations, rather than, for instance, victims of fraud.

Scottish trials

In Scotland a jury consists of 15 members of the public rather than 12 which is the case in England & Wales and Northern Ireland.

Prisons and Probation Ombudsman

The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) in England and Wales is appointed by the Secretary of
State for Justice after recommendation by the House of Commons Justice Committee. Currently the role has no statutory basis. This stands in contrast with Scotland and Northern Ireland, where the Ombudsman has been placed on a statutory footing, albeit only in the current century.

 

Interested readers can download the guide here.

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