Tina Stowell: The Government should accept ‘Charlie’s Law’ as part of the Health and Care Bill

28 Mar

Baroness Stowell of Beeston was Leader of the House of Lords from 2014 to 2016 and is a former Chair of the Charity Commission.

The House of Lords made an important ‘levelling-up’ amendment to the Health and Care Bill that hasn’t had much attention – which is odd when its genesis was a power struggle between an ordinary family and the medical and legal establishment; and it was front page news around the world for weeks.

Moreover, this correction to an unfair imbalance of power is at real risk of being removed in the Commons during ping-pong, so I think people need to know about it.

You must remember the case of Charlie Gard. He was the little baby diagnosed with a rare, terminal illness in 2017 whose parents – Connie and Chris – were at the centre of a huge legal battle with doctors about whether their son should be kept alive to receive treatment that might save his life.

The media attention it received was massive and the debate stretched from the High Court in London, to the Vatican, and the White House. It raised serious issues of medical ethics, the fundamental rights of parents – and it wasn’t just the Pope and Donald Trump who got involved. Everyone had a view.

My own was to accept what the Great Ormond Street hospital doctors were advising and what the judge decided was in Charlie’s best interests. I rationalised that, in such an unimaginable, heartbreaking situation, the objective and dispassionate professionals are best placed to make a decision that no parent would ever want to have to make for themselves.

When Charlie sadly died, I was moved by his parents’ dignity in coping with their heartbreak in the full glare of publicity. But probably like many others who felt so sorry for their loss – whichever ‘side’ of the debate we’d been on – I soon moved on and thought little more about this tragic case.

Then, just over a year ago, I heard Charlie’s mother, Connie Yates, talk to Andy Coulson on his podcast, Crisis What Crisis?. For well over an hour, I listened to her tell her story.

She spoke clearly, intelligently and reasonably about their traumatic experience and all that she and Chris went through in their fight to be taken seriously by doctors and lawyers. I learned that their expectations were well-informed but that as the dispute continued and they found themselves in court, the situation became increasingly fraught and distressing, to the point where their efforts to be heard as parents made them feel that others believed they were guilty of not wanting the best for their baby.

It’s worth listening to her, and if you do, you’ll also hear Connie praise the medical staff who had cared for Charlie at Great Ormond Street. She is incredibly fair – which makes her all the more compelling.

Connie and Chris’s is, of course, an extreme example of what it means not to be listened to or taken seriously by highly qualified professionals who, because they know more, believe they know best.

But it is all the more profound because they were parents and the matter on which they deserved a say and some respect was the treatment of their child. It struck me listening to Connie that, if our laws and regulations allow parents to feel powerless when their child is at risk of dying, something has gone badly wrong – and it’s no wonder many people feel the professional classes they rely on don’t understand the people they exist to serve.

I was therefore very interested when, towards the end of Connie’s interview, she mentioned a Private Member’s Bill being sponsored by the Cross-bench peer Baroness Finlay and Bambos Charalambous, the Labour MP, that would bring to life what she called “Charlie’s Law”. The aim of this modest Bill was to prevent other parents going through the same ordeal they had faced.

Put simply, it would create a legal framework to allow for mediation and resolution between parents and doctors when they disagree; the aim being to prevent doctors resorting to the law and families having to fight for and defend their position in the courts before there’s been an opportunity to find a reasonable way through.

In developing this framework, Connie had taken the time to contact and listen respectfully to the doctors who had opposed her whilst Charlie was alive, so that she could better understand their position and make sure that the new law would work for the benefit of the medical profession, not just parents.

No-one is suggesting this is a silver bullet, but this reasonable measure is a way for doctors and parents to share power and responsibility in the best interests of the child. It’s a solution from people who really understand what it’s like to feel powerless.

Since I first heard about all this, Baroness Finlay (who is a doctor and professor of palliative medicine) has worked closely with professionals, charities and lawyers and, instead of facing the usual procedural challenges and risks of introducing a Private Members Bill, seized an opportunity to amend the Health and Care Bill to introduce “Charlie’s Law”.

The Government is yet to be convinced, but thanks to widespread support from around the House, the amendment was passed… by just five votes. It’s that small margin which puts it at risk during ping-pong without Government support.

So I’m hoping that the Government will accept it when the Commons considers the Lords amendments to the Bill on Wednesday this week. It costs little, if any, public money. More to the point, Charlie’s Law supports an important and often ignored aspect of what ‘levelling-up’ means for many people: being listened to and respected as good citizens when trying to do the right thing.

For that, if for no other reason, it deserves to be taken seriously and passed on to the statute books.

James Cartlidge: How we’re clearing the Covid backlog in our courts

15 Mar

James Cartlidge MP is Parliamentary Undersecretary at the Ministry of Justice.

Today we have announced the most ambitious reforms of criminal legal aid in decades. Coming alongside a significant boost in access to civil legal aid, this amounts to one of the most important days of legal reform announced by a Conservative government.

The timing is crucial as we emerge from the pandemic and start to make progress on tackling our Covid-induced courts’ backlogs.

The proposed reforms to criminal legal aid, that we will now consult on, arise in response to ‘CLAIR’ – the Criminal Legal Aid Independent Review overseen by Sir Christopher Bellamy QC and published last December.

Most importantly, we are delivering the two headline recommendations of CLAIR –  £135m additional funding for the criminal legal aid system; uplifts of 15 per cent to most criminal legal aid schemes, paid to barristers and solicitors on the front line. Those schemes include: police station; magistrates’ court and most elements of the Crown Court schemes (AGFS for barristers, and elements of the LGFS scheme for solicitors).

When added to the extra £200m we have committed each year to speed up the courts system, today’s announcement will bring total taxpayer funding for criminal defence to £1.2 billion a year, the largest amount for a decade.

But crucially, this significant investment will not only add a vital cash injection to lift fees for criminal practitioners, it will set us on a path to reform that I believe will ultimately deliver better outcomes in the wider criminal justice system.

For example, one change would boost pay for lawyers representing suspects in police stations by 15 percent to tackle the perverse incentive that currently discourages lawyers from this work, instead choosing to represent defendants in Crown Courts because it pays better. The proposals will improve the advice available in police stations and stop cases going to court unnecessarily, delivering speedier justice to victims.

I recently visited Brixton police station to speak with the custody team about the serious challenge of how we provide early legal advice to minors, caught up in potential criminality, and – all too often at present – not engaging with a system they don’t trust. The team explained how they are participating in our pilot scheme that requires children facing charge to actively opt out of advice rather than having to opt in to it.

Initial signs are very encouraging, and it underlines to me that better outcomes are possible; early advice, all other things being equal, should mean justice is better served for all affected.

The proposals will also give more people the opportunity to forge a career in criminal law, whatever their background, by funding the training and accreditation of solicitors and solicitor advocates, and removing barriers for members of the chartered institute of legal executives (CILEX).

Alongside £2.5m of funding for training places, I hope that this investment in the next generation – combined with boosting fees for the present practitioner cohort – shows how our reforms are a long-term commitment to a more sustainable criminal legal profession.

Finally, our reforms to criminal legal aid are delivered on the same day we expand access to legal aid more broadly, through major reform of the means test that determines eligibility.

Ultimately, this is about access to justice: our proposed changes will open up access to civil legal aid for around two million more people, meaning that victims of domestic abuse, children and families at inquests will find it easier to access financial support in court. Domestic abuse victims will also benefit from changes to the means test that will mean property will not count towards their wealth if that property is the subject matter of the dispute.

The financial cap on eligibility for Crown Court defendants will also be removed, ending the so-called ‘Innocence Tax’ which has forced some innocent people to pay their own legal costs despite being acquitted.

Combined with our measures to bear down on the backlog – Nightingale courts; unlimited Crown Court sitting days; judicial recruitment – I believe today’s announcements will set us on a positive path of recovery, benefiting not just those who work in the justice system, but all those with an interest in its vitality and viability.

Danny Stone: Non-crime hate incidents serve a useful purpose – ministers should not undermine them

1 Mar

Danny Stone MBE is the Chief Executive of the Antisemitism Policy Trust.

Throughout the period of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party, one of the most heinous and upsetting elements for me was the constant reference to allegations and experiences of anti-Jewish racism as a smear.

As I pointed out repeatedly at that time, and still do, our British approach to hate crime, learned so painfully through the Macpherson process which followed the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence, is to treat those reporting incidents with proper care and to investigate with due diligence.

The definition of hate is victim-led when it comes to reporting, and rightly so.

Of course, the criminal law also rightly sets a high threshold for illegal hate, so that our freedoms are not impinged, and of course not every report will be a crime. Moreover, there will always be those that seek to make mischief of some sort.

However, this approach, of victim-led hate reporting has had significant and important positive impacts for police, and communities, in diagnosing harm, extremism, and failing integration or community-cohesion efforts.

The police message to affected communities is clear: that they want to encourage victims to come forward. We all know that recording rules can be complex, but they should not be a concern to a victim at their time of distress. The police want us to tell them when we experience serious harm and let them decide which category it falls into.

Whether that ends up as a hate crime, or a non-crime hate incident, the impact on our sense of safety can be exactly the same. Our collective learning from many inquiries into horrific crimes is that there were signs of escalating risk that could, if properly assessed and reacted to, have in some cases prevented death.

Take the tragic case of Fiona Pilkington, who killed herself and her severely disabled daughter Francecca Hardwick some 15 years ago, following a decade of torment by local youths. The 33 reported incidents to the police were never considered as a series, as they targeted different members of Pilkington’s family and at different locations, but the accumulative effect on the family brought her to a situation to take unthinkable action to remove her daughter from such a hostile environment.

Many of those incidents should have been recorded as non-crime hate incidents and the Independent Police Complaints Commission report found that the failure to consider the overall harm to the family prevented the interventions that could have protected them and prevented the tragedy.

Despite this, more recently non-crime hate incidents have come in for criticism.

Harry Miller was interviewed by Humberside Police over allegedly transphobic tweets. He wasn’t charged and then took the police to court to challenge their right to retain a record of the incident. He won on the specific claim against Humberside, but the court ruled that in general the police could continue to retain data relating to non-crime hate incidents.

From here, the debate has turned largely to questions of free speech and the impact of residual data handling, though this has also become twinned with interconnected discussion of transphobia and women’s rights. Much of the debate of late has centered on this issue, but discussion can become febrile and even extreme.

We should not lose sight of other fractures in society and the role played in recording them. Holocaust denial and antisemitic hate speech will often be sub-criminal, but society recognises the harm in the denial of historical facts surrounding this unique atrocity and others. We have many examples of individuals who have been influenced by hate and misinformation and have been motivated to acts of extreme violence.

At the heart of the debate is the need to balance often conflicting rights to free speech and protection from harm. What our agencies and our society need is a system that can recognise and seek to balance these rights, and recognise when conflict has the potential to escalate to harm.

A backbench peer sought to amend the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, currently making its way through Parliament, to regulate non-crime hate incidents. Though that amendment was withdrawn, it gathered widespread support from across the House; so much so that the Government took the matter away and intends to produce its own Code of Practice to dictate the recording of these non-crime incidents.

That Code of Practice may well turn out to be good but for me, the action has been taken without enough of a case having been made for these incidents being captured in the first place. As the Bill makes its way for Royal Assent, it is important that it is.

In Britain, organisations working to record incidents of antisemitic, homophobic, and anti-Muslim attacks are broadly considered to report data that is authoritative, robust and reliable. In some cases, there are data sharing agreements with the police to anonymise and exchange incident details.

If a new law, or indeed code, is drawn up in such a way that it prevents local police and non-police bodies from retaining non-crime hate incident data then that could be devastating, not just for those organisations involved but for our national ability to understand, interrogate and take action to address many forms of harm.

We must remain victim-led in the reporting of hate, not to do so would be an abdication of our duty to learn the hard lessons from a racist past.

Ryan Stephenson: There should be no lawful excuse for the criminal damage of statues

10 Jan

Cllr Ryan Stephenson is Shadow Cabinet Member for Children & Families on Leeds City Council and was the Conservative candidate in the Batley & Spen by-election.

Social media was ablaze with opinion this week, as a jury at Bristol Crown Court found the so-called “Colston Four” not guilty of criminal damage, despite video footage showing them pulling down a statue of 17th century philanthropist, Tory MP, and slave-trader, Edward Colston, and then ditching his bronze into Bristol’s Floating Harbour.

Left-wing commentators and supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement argue that the jury’s verdict validates direct action, whilst those opposed argue that the courts are pandering to the woke brigade. But what does such discreditation of a jury’s verdict mean for the future of our legal system?

In this case, a randomly selected jury reached a verdict based on the evidence and a defence put to them in court. The irony for the defendants is that they were acquitted by the very type of antiquated system of traditions and processes that their movement rallies against. As predicated in Magna Carta, and then by Pope Innocent III in 1215, those charged with an offence are entitled to be judged by a panel of their peers: twelve good men and true.

As video evidence shows, there was no question over whether the four were involved in the toppling of the statue; however, the court was presented by the defence with an argument of lawful excuse and it is on the point that those angered by the verdict should focus their attention, not towards members of the jury.

The defence argued several points, including – most oddly – that removing the statue was to assist in the prevention of a crime, asking the jury to consider whether the presence of the statue itself constituted an offence under Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, citing that its existence was causing harm or distress to some members of the public. Clearly, there are some in society who have recently become vexed by the existence of British history, but this is not absolute; indeed, according to Deltapoll, only 24 per cent of the public agreed with the toppling of Colston’s statue. This defence therefore raises deeper questions around the threshold for a lawful excuse of preventing distress when it may just be that the individuals were simply offended by something in a society that claims to foster freedom of speech and expression.

There are further deficiencies around lawful excuses. Under Section 5(2) of the Criminal Damage Act 1971, legislation permits a defence for carrying out criminal damage if the person believed that those entitled to consent to the destruction or damage to property had so consented or would have so consented if they had known of the destruction or damage. Furthermore, the Act determines that it is immaterial as to whether such a belief is justified or not if it is honestly held. In effect, this could raise a defence of lawful excuse in that the perpetrators of criminal damage in this case honestly believed, whether justified or not, that members of the public attending the demonstration were entitled to consent to the destruction of the statue by virtue of it being owned by Bristol City Council, for and on behalf of the wider public.

As a result of this case, the government should reform legislation, but ministers must avoid falling into a trap of questioning the jury’s verdict, doing so risks putting ministers in the uncomfortable position of undermining the principles of trial by jury. Instead, ministers should seek to reform the Criminal Damage Act to remove clauses of lawful excuses that can be used in court as a reasonable defence. There should be no lawful excuse for criminal damage where those entitled to consent have not expressly done so. Honestly holding a belief that the owner of the property would consent should no longer be a lawful excuse and it should certainly no longer be immaterial as to whether such a belief is justified or not. It should be for a jury to determine whether such a belief is indeed justified based on evidence put to them in court.

The Criminal Prosecution Service argue that there are limited circumstances where a lawful excuse for criminal damage is a necessary clause in legislation, for example, to protect firefighters from charges relating to third party water damage as a result of extinguishing a fire; however, it can be argued that those protections are already provided by virtue of Section 44 of the Fire & Rescue Services Act 2004, establishing the actions available to firefighters in an emergency.

It would be easy to jump on the bandwagon and call out the jurors for the verdict they reached in the case of the “Colston Four”, but they reached their verdict based on a defence provided within legislation. To strengthen law and order in the public realm and to prevent further instances of criminal damage by a mob intent on erasing passages of British history, the answer should not be to discredit our system of legal process, but to reform it; and ministers would do well to begin by removing lawful excuses for criminal damage.

Joseph Silke: However well intentioned, Harper’s Law is a mistake

2 Dec

Joseph Silke is communications manager at Bright Blue.

On the evening of Thursday 15th August 2019, 28-year-old Thames Valley police constable Andrew Harper was dragged along a Berkshire road to his death, lassoed while pursuing three fleeing suspects in an incident of quad bike theft.

The suspects were later cleared of murder, but convicted of his manslaughter. Henry Long, who was driving the bike and had pleaded guilty, was sentenced to 16 years in prison. Albert Bowers and Jessie Cole, who had pleaded not guilty but were found guilty by the jury, were both sentenced to 13 years.

PC Harper’s widow, Lissie Harper, has since campaigned for a significant change in the law, which the Lord Chancellor and Dominic Raab, the Deputy Prime Minister, formally backed last week: mandatory life sentences for those who kill an emergency worker in the course of their duty.

Few can comprehend the grief she must be feeling, but the Government’s decision to back her campaign by passing a ‘Harper’s Law’ is illiberal and alarming.

Regardless of what one thinks about the severity of the sentence handed down to his killers, and however well intentioned the campaign for it might be, Harper’s Law should be opposed by all those who believe in a free and fair society in which all life is treated equally.

Harper’s Law would signify a fundamental unbalancing in the relationship between the individual and the state. It would create a two-tier hierarchy for killing, with agents of the state elevated above the people they serve. The lives of emergency workers, particularly police officers, should not be considered of greater importance than those of the rest of society.

The police are a vital part of the community, and their efforts during the pandemic have been rightly recognised and praised, but the Peelian principles upon which British policing was founded rests on the notion that police officers are regarded as citizens in uniform, as one of us, underpinning policing by consent. This law would undermine that bond.

The proposal also erodes the vital distinction between murder and manslaughter, and between different examples of manslaughter, which has been a key component of criminal law for hundreds of years.

A mandatory life sentence removes the discretion usually available to judges to determine the proportional punishment in cases of manslaughter. Manslaughter takes many forms, with some more egregious than others. It is for judges to consider what mitigating factors might be at play when sentencing, which is an integral part of their role.

As such, defendants found guilty of manslaughter can already be given a life sentence by a judge if deemed appropriate. Harper’s Law isn’t needed for that, but would instead automatically inflict the most severe punishment in English law in every case, regardless of the circumstances involved, on par with murder.

This would be a massive expansion in the powers of the state and would inevitably lead to miscarriages of justice, in which higher sentences are handed down for crimes which would otherwise have involved lighter prison terms. Even for those who believe that Harper’s case ended unjustly, with sentences that were too lenient, the reaction cannot be to introduce new injustices elsewhere.

There is also already an existing process by which sentences deemed to be insufficient can be challenged by the Attorney General’s Office, and potentially increased by the Court of Appeal. In this case, an appeal was made, and the sentences were not changed.

The Government wants to show its commitment to key workers, especially the police, and that is perfectly reasonable. Harper’s Law, however, is the wrong way to do it. It is lazy policymaking, with highly damaging consequences.

Andrew Mitchell: It is past time the Government renegotiated our extradition treaty with the United States

30 Jul

Andrew Mitchell was International Development Secretary from 2010 to 2012, and is MP for Sutton Coldfield.

Often the political events that really matter involve neither Parliament nor politicians. As the House of Commons packed up for the summer last week, a decision made in a courtroom on the other side of the City of Westminster raised serious questions about the UK’s sovereignty.

There, a judge ruled that the British entrepreneur Mike Lynch should be extradited to the United States because – in short – the US Department of Justice had said that such an extradition should happen.

It didn’t matter that the High Court in London had spent ten months considering allegations against Dr Lynch but not yet handed down its judgement. It didn’t matter that Dr Lynch’s business was based in London. It certainly didn’t matter that he was one of the most successful British businessmen of the last twenty years, with the creation of two massive listed companies to his name – Autonomy and Darktrace.

The only thing that carried any weight, in the end, was the UK’s extradition treaty with the US. This makes it far easier for the US to extradite Britons, than it is for the UK to extradite Americans.

It is unfair. But that is not the sole problem.

The treaty’s original purpose was to be a tool in the fight against terrorism. Today, the majority of extraditions concern non-violent alleged offences as US prosecutors appear to target not simply white-collar criminals in general terms, but businesspeople who have fallen out with corporate America. It has become, in other words, a tool to exert economic pressure on the UK, and some of us are deeply troubled by this.

Summer recess always meant carrying on with politics in a different place. The pandemic has seen my colleagues grow even better at making their views known from their constituencies. All of us are adept at communicating and campaigning remotely and this summer, in the light of that court decision, extradition is a real focus.

It is once again a subject in MPs’ virtual mailbags. The treaty destroys lives, one correspondent wrote to me, and there is an opportunity now to stand up to US whims. I do not see the US as whimsical; it is a vital ally. But I, like many Conservatives, think the extradition system cannot be allowed to stand in its current form.

The UK’s readiness to comply is not an international norm. France, for example, does not extradite its own citizens. Courts there have legal authority to prosecute crimes committed by Frenchmen and women overseas. Germany, Austria, and Switzerland are among other “non-extradition” states.

Our arrangements with EU nations, meanwhile, are similarly unbalanced. Twenty European countries are refusing to guarantee that suspected criminals among their own citizens can be extradited to the UK.

For Britain, a moment of truth is upon us. The Home Secretary must now decide whether to agree to the extradition of Dr Lynch. If she grants the extradition he will appeal, but she should, at the very least, delay until a pending judgement in the High Court case that considered the allegations against him is published. She would be wise to go further and suspend all extraditions for those not facing allegations of sexual or violent offences until a review of our entire extradition system is complete.

The American Treaty is a hotch-potch of Tony Blair’s creation that is condemned anew with each fresh, monstrous decision, whether it is the pursuit of computer hacker by Gary McKinnon – who was saved only by Theresa May’s personal intervention – or the blank refusal of the US to yield up Anne Sacoolas, accused of causing the death by dangerous driving of Harry Dunn in Northamptonshire.

It beggars belief that for all the outrage the Treaty remains in place. Many Conservatives are determined that this state of affairs must not remain unchallenged.

The foreign secretary Dominic Raab once argued that while some would sigh at the hassle of renegotiating this extradition agreement, the liberty of our citizens must be put ahead of diplomatic inconvenience. I agree.

Until that renegotiation comes, a risk hangs over citizens working in this country: fall out with a US company and you could be seized by US officials. The situation is bad for business, bad for relations with our closest ally, and overdue for change.

The Forstater case highlights why the role of the courts in politics is worth scrutinising

12 Jun

Regardless of your view of the merits of the case, it feels remarkable that we have reached the point where a judge should ever have been given cause or opportunity to pronounce on whether or not someone’s political views were “not worthy of respect in a democratic society”.

Yet those were the words of Judge James Tayler in the 2019 judgment which propelled Maya Forstater to the front lines of the battle raging between trans activists and ‘gender-critical’ feminists.

As ever when we find the judges cropping up somewhere we might not expect or want them, there are two forces at play.

First, there is the tendency of the judiciary to try and interpret the law in a manner that expands its own power. The Government is currently grappling with the consequences of this tendency: the unionist challenge to the Withdrawal Act and the Irish Protocol rests on a theory of ‘constitutional statutes’ that was invented on the bench.

But whilst conservatives are wont to complain about this, MPs must also shoulder their share of the blame. For it has been Parliament’s wont to pass legislation granting or entrenching rights in broad terms, and then leaving the judges to iron out the fine details as cases emerge. Tayler may have spoken with unwise baldness, in light of Forstater’s successful appeal, but it was MPs who put him in a position to be deciding what views qualified for legal protection.

The Forstater case highlights a link between two things we know are on the Government’s agenda: being seen to take action against some of the ‘woke’ stuff, and restricting the political role of the judiciary. But delivering meaningful, structural change will require far more than ministers wading into the latest row on Twitter, or even withdrawing from Stonewall’s workplace scheme.

At minimum it will mean making sure the planned Judicial Review Bill makes it into the legislative agenda and in a sufficiently meaty form. Some sources suggest that the Prime Minister has ordered that the proposals be watered down – and if the Conservatives aren’t going to do this shortly after winning an 80-seat majority, they’re not going to do it at all.

It could also mean thinking again about the Government’s relationship with the judiciary and the diminished role of the Lord Chancellor. Our editor has previously looked at Robert Buckland’s thinking on this.

But to truly limit the scope of the courts will require something much bigger: a fundamental shift in how Parliament approaches legislation. It means tightly-drafted legislation, and a much more proactive approach to following it up in the event of judicial misinterpretation. It means resisting the urge to farm important decisions out to the judges, and amending existing legislation that does so.

This is hard, detailed work, and to succeed it will require the full attention of an able and determined team over the long term, with the full backing of the Prime Minister. Without it, we can expect the next generation of Tory ministers to end up defending what this generation strikes poses against.

Robert Buckland: More prison places, a domestic abuse bill, tougher sentences. How we’re acting on the people’s priorities.

4 May

Robert Buckland is Secretary of State for Justice, Lord Chancellor, and MP for South Swindon.

As I pound the pavements of Swindon, Birmingham and Hartlepool with fellow Conservatives, one of the key messages I hear from people is the burning need for politicians to act on their priorities.  Having been through the worst peacetime crisis in living memory, communities and families up and down our country want to share in the recovery from Covid, get those jabs as part of our world-beating vaccination programme – and get on with their lives.

The people’s priorities are our priorities, which is why, from the day that Boris Johnson became Prime Minister and asked me to be his Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor, we have relentlessly focused on delivering on our justice commitments, as we roll out our pledge to put 20,000 more police officers in place. After over 20 years of direct working experience in the system as a lawyer and part-time judge, I know what has to be done in order to help rebuild public confidence.

Immediately after taking office, we took swift action to ramp up investment in prison building, with over £2.5 billion committed to build an additional 10,000 places, now increased to over £4 billion in the latest Spending Review.

We have installed dozens of new scanners in our prisons, to help combat smuggling and crime. I took decisive steps to end automatic half-way release from prison for serious violent and sexual offenders serving sentences of more than seven years, and increased the range of offences that can be referred to the Court of Appeal for being unacceptably low.

Covid brought unprecedented challenges to the justice system, but with hard work and swift decision-making, we controlled the disease in our prisons, supported our dedicated prison staff and ensured that there was no disorder or dysfunction on the estate. We kept the courts running throughout each lockdown, and were the first in the western world to resume jury trials.

We have used remote technology to run tens of thousands of hearings every week, and have created sixty new Nightingale courtrooms to help deal with the caseload. We have made our courts safer, with investment in perspex and other measures. We have recruited over 1600 extra staff to ensure that the courts run as smoothly as possible.

This is yielding results: the caseload in the Magistrates Courts is being steadily reduced, and in the Crown Court we are now seeing more cases dealt with per week than being received. In the coming year, there will be no limit as to the days the Crown Court can sit, making it clear that our priority is to get cases done so that victims and witnesses aren’t kept waiting. The court recovery plans that I approved last year are bearing fruit, and now we plan to make permanent some of the changes brought about Covid, as we build back stronger.

We did not let the Covid crisis get in the way of the work we are doing to reform justice and to carry out our manifesto pledges. We are reforming probation, with a new national probation service being launched in June, 1000 extra probation officers and a new electronic sobriety tagging programme that is being rolled out across the country.

We have plans to revitalise unpaid work schemes, with an emphasis on visibility and real benefit to local communities. Investment in mental health treatment is being increased, so that alternatives to custody are robust and more likely to work.

During the past year, we passed vital pieces of legislation that mark the beginning of our reforms. The new Sentencing Code makes the law clearer and easier to use, reducing the number of errors and appeals. Helen’s Law is part of our reform of the Parole Board, making it mandatory for the Board to take into account when considering an application for release the applicant’s failure to tell the authorities the whereabouts of their murder victim or the identities of sexually abused victims.

We passed emergency anti-terrorism legislation in the wake of the Fishmongers Hall and Streatham atrocities in order to end automatic early release for a range of terror offences and in the new Counter Terrorism Act, we have lengthened maximum sentences for serious terror offences, created longer licence supervision periods for these offenders and reformed the TPIM (Terrorist Prevention and Investigation Measures) regime to ensure that we are doing all we can to prevent these appalling crimes from happening in the first place.

After I introduced the Domestic Abuse Bill into the Commons just after the general election jointly with the Home Secretary, it has now become law. Yet again, it is the Conservatives who are leading on the protection of the victims of abuse in the home. Those who perpetrate this abuse will no longer be able to cross-examine their victims in person in our civil and family courts, and new Domestic Abuse Prevention Orders will be available to help safeguard more families from this harm.

We have also moved to clarify the law on non-fatal strangulation, so-called “rough sex” defences, revenge pornography and coercive control offences. Conservatives have never hesitated to take decisive action on crime, and our action on domestic abuse is another reflection of this determination.

The new Police Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill, which Labour are opposing at every step, is the next stage in our reforms. We will end automatic halfway release for even more serious violent and sexual offenders, increase the maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving from fourteen years to life imprisonment, toughen minimum sentences for house burglary, drug trafficking and knife crime and impose whole life orders for those who commit the premeditated murder of a child. We will increase the maximum that can be imposed by way of curfew hours to further strengthen community sentences too.

Victims of crime deserve a voice, which is why I have introduced a new, clearer and simpler Victims Code which enshrines the need for proper communication and support from the police, prosecution and other agencies. We are going to consult this year on a new Victims Law to further strengthen these important rights.

As we go to the polls to elect 43 Police and Crime Commissioners in England and Wales, the message is clear: elect a Conservative PCC who will work with a Conservative Government that is investing in criminal justice and creating a new framework that will deliver on the people’s priorities.

Arminka Helic: Training on domestic abuse should be mandatory for judges hearing cases involving it. MPs can make this happen.

14 Apr

Baroness Helic is a Conservative Life peer.

For many victims of domestic abuse, the family courts simply aren’t working. Worse than that: they are being undermined and exploited by abusers, as a continuing means of control over their ex-partners. As the Domestic Abuse Bill returns to the House of Commons on Thursday 15, MPs have a chance to fix that – if they approve crucial amendments from the House of Lords.

Three examples give a sense of the problem. A judge said that a survivor “didn’t look like a victim” because she wore make-up to court. A survivor of domestic violence was ordered to respond to two emails a week from her abuser, within 48 hours for each – giving him continued access to and control over her life. One parent was taken to court 27 times in the space of five years by her abuser. Each example shows a lack of understanding and recognition of domestic abuse and coercive control – and shows how the courts can be used to continue it.

There are many cases like this – too many. The family courts’ approach to domestic abuse remains much the same as twenty years ago, and the system is stacked against survivors. The Ministry of Justice’s Harm Panel Review concluded that a “major overhaul” is needed. And it stressed the importance of detailed and specific training on domestic abuse for all participants in the family law system, reviewed by experts, and including a “cultural change programme to introduce and embed reforms”.

That is why I introduced an amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill in the House of Lords, which makes training on domestic abuse mandatory for judges hearing cases involving abuse. Domestic abuse affects all aspects of a family court case. It shapes how participants appear in court, the evidence they give and how they give it. It is a critical factor in determining the interests at stake and how safe child contact is arranged. If the courts are to do their job, then judges need to understand domestic abuse and coercive control.

Without a good knowledge and understanding of domestic abuse and the insidious ways it works, the other – very welcome – measures in the Domestic Abuse Bill will not be enough to protect victims, as the Ministry of Justice’s own review recognised. New mechanisms are no help if abuse continues to be overlooked, misunderstood and dismissed. That is why training is necessary. It has to underpin all the measures in the Bill – and all our efforts to tackle domestic abuse

The Government says that it will pursue more training without primary legislation. But as the Harm Panel Review identified, current training is not working. Promising more of it will not achieve the reform which is needed. If Parliament does not kick start that reform, victims will continue to be failed.

Ministers have also said that Parliament should not get involved in the specifics of judicial training. That’s why my amendment ensures that it is still the Judicial College which is ultimately responsible for shaping and delivering the training – but it creates a much more robust framework within which they can do that. It works through judicial systems – but makes sure those systems work.

Putting a requirement for training in law means that we can give shape, meaning and coherence to commitments to improved training for judges. We can ensure scrutiny – the best way to guarantee rigour and effectiveness. And we can guarantee that this is a commitment which gets the resources it needs, and that outlasts individual ministers or funding cycles.

By specifying some of the ground that training must cover, we can ensure that it gives judges and magistrates a thorough grounding in all the different ways domestic abuse can influence a court case, all the ways it should be taken into account when considering a child’s welfare.

By involving the Domestic Abuse Commissioner, as well as the Judicial College, the President of the Family Court and the Head of the Magistrates’ Association, we can ensure high quality training, informed by up-to-date evidence-based knowledge, which equips our judges and magistrates with the skills they need to wrestle with these difficult cases, and provide protection and justice to survivors of abuse.

Family cases are some of the most complex and emotionally challenging anywhere in our courts. In the great majority, judges act with wisdom and compassion. Arguing for more training should not be seen as an attack on them.

Greater understanding of domestic abuse among the judiciary should even save time and resources in the courts, with vexatious litigation spotted sooner, and judges better able to prevent abusers from bringing repeated cases as a means of controlling their victims.

My amendment is backed by the Domestic Abuse Commissioner, the National and London Victims’ Commissioners, and lawyers and experts from the family court system and the domestic abuse sector. It is backed by the many survivors who tell me how important training is.

One survivor who contacted me recently described how she was not seen as a victim of domestic abuse, because there were no broken bones, no scars, and because was perceived as a “strong and capable woman”. But we know domestic abuse takes many more forms than just the most visible manifestations of violence. It is no good changing our legislation to reflect that if we do not change practice in the courts as well. That requires training – and that training needs to be embedded in law.

We are almost there. My amendment passed in the House of Lords with support from peers of all parties, but it is now returning to the House of Commons. MPs should listen to the stories which I’m sure they hear from survivors. They should listen to experts from the domestic abuse sector. And I hope they will seize the moment to create a court system which works for victims and survivors, not for their abusers.