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The slow death of British justice

 Can we go in there?” mumbles Chris, nodding towards a pokey private office. The 15-year-old speaks through an overcoat zipped up past his mouth. His eyes dart around the waiting area in Willesden magistrates’ court, north-west London. It’s choked with people waiting for cases to be called and the atmosphere is tense. Since budget cuts forced this court to merge with others near by, it’s been heaving with young people from rival gangs, from territories such as Church Road, Stonebridge and Hendon. The threat of violence is real.

“I’m from Neasden, but I obviously don’t come around here normally,” says Chris once the door is shut. “Anything could happen. People can make a phone call and get people down. I was outside [court] once and a group of guys got out of a cab and chased me down the street.”

Magistrates’ courts don’t deal with high-profile cases, but they matter. Although they mostly fall below the national media’s attention, they make judgments on more than 90 per cent of criminal cases in England and Wales. Their focus is on serving justice locally. They confront the underbelly of our communities, dealing with antisocial behaviour, gang crime and vandalism. Most distinctively, their judgments are made entirely by volunteers. The magistrates passing sentences are ordinary people from local communities taking responsibility. They learn as well as contribute. It’s a fantastic system, but it’s being dismembered.

Some 103 of our country’s 330 magistrates’ courts are closing as a result of cuts. Many, such as those in Woking and Harlow, have already been boarded up.

In Wales, Barry court took the Ministry of Justice to judicial review, but they were overridden in the high court. The surviving courts must deal with the backlog, and the result is a failing system. The cost of rearranging cases is soaring. Bureaucracy is increasing. Witnesses are not turning up. Kids are taking more days off school. Justice is suffering.

Defence campaign

With so much work being done by volunteers, our local justice system was an example of the Big Society at work. Its present woes are an indictment of the Tories and David Cameron in particular, who is criticised by his own backbenchers for failing to know what’s worth protecting. Cutting 25 per cent from the Courts and Tribunals Service budget is a short-sighted saving that will come at great institutional cost in the long term.

“It’s already taking longer for some cases to come to court,” says John Fassenfelt, chairman of the Magistrates’ Association, whose home town of Slough has gone from three courts to none. “Anecdotally, we hear magistrates are issuing more [arrest] warrants because people are less likely to turn up if they have to travel 20 or 30 miles for a trial.”

This should be fertile ground for Labour. While the European Court of Human Rights, which has dominated recent headlines, is easily caricatured as unpopular, unaccountable and expensive, local magistrates’ courts are supported by volunteers, and boast an appeal rate of just 2 per cent. Yet although the left has always been good at knowing what it wants to change, in recent times it’s been less clear about what traditions and values it wants to protect. The Labour Party is predictably jumpy at the idea of being labelled “conservative”, but it does need a clearer idea of what it wants to conserve.

Take Michael Situ, the young legal advocate for Chris. Although he’s a dedicated Labour member, the party has done little to defend his work. As he walks into court, ready for a day that will almost certainly finish late, he is besieged. A man in a blue hoodie is almost in tears because no one has turned up to represent him and he’s about to face the magistrate alone. Situ wants to help, but with cuts to legal aid on top of the extra cases from closed courts, it’s hard for his firm to even tread water. It’s not unusual for Situ to advocate for six or seven people a day.

“You often find you’ve double booked yourself and you have something in two courts at once, so you’re just left praying that one will finish early”, Situ says. “In the last month we’ve had six or seven trials that have been vacated [postponed] because there’s just no space for them, and sometimes defendants are left without lawyers.”

Back in Willesden, Chris’s mum continues to sit nervously with her son. She is on benefits, but still pays for taxis to go through areas she knows are dangerous for her son rather than risking public transport. There’s a horrible irony about a justice system that is supposed to make us safer leaving us more vulnerable. She loses time looking for work and Chris misses school to be ignored for hours in a crowded courtroom.

At home, her 11-year-old daughter and two other children are alone. If they are getting into trouble, criminal or otherwise, she wouldn’t know about it.

Rowenna Davis is the author of “Tangled Up In Blue: Blue Labour and the Struggle for Labour’s Soul” (Short Books, £8.99)

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

This article first appeared in the 07 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The Science Issue

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.