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19 June 2024

Reform of the legal system is imperative

Those who aspire to lead must embody the seven principles of public life.

By Marina Wheeler

In a featureless room crammed with lawyers, and before a judge, Paula Vennells’ face contorts (is that crying?) as she is confronted with the facts. “I wasn’t told… I didn’t know…” she repeats. The truth is emerging behind this appalling miscarriage of justice: sub-postmasters and -mistresses were accused of theft and ruined by a Post Office that refused to recognise its faulty accounting software was creating phantom losses. Some who suffered will see some form of recompense. Others have died and never will. Why did this reckoning take so long? And how did the original failing happen?

Modern society is complex and people are fallible, so things go wrong. People, being different, disagree, sometimes violently. But a healthy society has to be able to correct its errors and resolve disputes – quickly and efficiently. Unaddressed injustice is corrosive: people lose faith – in their institutions, in their leaders, and ultimately in the nation itself.

Our legal system works well in many ways. The judiciary is highly skilled and genuinely independent. During the turbulent years after the country voted to leave the European Union, the courts played a crucial role. The electorate was divided and most of the political class, charged with enacting the outcome, did not support it. Twice, government decisions related to leaving were challenged in the courts. The cases reached the Supreme Court promptly. Both went against the government of the day, but as the rule of law requires, the court’s rulings were respected.

More recently, the Supreme Court ruled on the government’s policy to send asylum seekers, arriving in small boats from France, to Rwanda. After close analysis of the law and evidence, the Supreme Court found systemic failings – which would take time to remedy – and ruled Rwanda to be “unsafe” in its handling of asylum claims. Determined to implement its policy and get asylum seekers on flights before polling day, the government tweaked the agreement with Rwanda, and mobilised its majority to pass legislation stating that Rwanda was now “safe”. Interim rulings of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to the contrary may be ignored, the new law says.

The Safety of Rwanda Act undermines the rule of law. Parliamentarians should not have agreed to legislate that black was white. Whether the Rwanda policy survives in its current form depends on the outcome of the general election on 4 July. Regardless, respect for court rulings must be restored. Despite not being codified in a single document, our constitution positions the rule of law as a bulwark against tyranny. Britain’s historical role has been to engage with the world and help shape its rules. If aspects of the European Convention on Human Rights need amending, Britain, as one of its original drafters, should assemble a coalition of countries to attempt this.

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In a competitive world, London remains a leading international centre for dispute resolution. Tight case management in specialist courts; sound use of technology; knowing you cannot bribe a UK judge – these all contribute. But outside the commercial sphere, the ordinary citizen experiences a justice system buckling under intolerable strain.

Working in our degraded criminal and family justice system is demoralising. But this hardly compares with the anguish of parents of children who have been murdered by dangerous offenders – those who have been released without proper supervision – or by mentally ill people who were unable to access help. A core function of the state is to keep us safe. Low police numbers and long delays in criminal trials inhibit this. So does the parlous state of our prisons – their populations still swollen by people who shouldn’t be there: children and those suffering from addiction and ill-health. Rehabilitation appears abandoned. Instead, we have temporary containment at enormous expense. When the prisons fill, early-release schemes are put in place. This is dangerous and short-sighted. Those in the system know that innovation (improved electronic tagging, the use of restorative justice) and investment will improve it and save money. Reform is imperative. 

A legal system isn’t worth its salt if ordinary citizens can’t access it. Organisations like Citizens Advice and Law Centres, which once provided free early advice, still have a role and should be revived. So should legal aid. Alternatives to litigation to resolve disputes between private parties, such as mediation, should be embraced.

Whistleblowers often provide an early warning of serious failings – whether poor maternity care or neonatal deaths. But too often organisations shut their collective, corporate ears and even turn on the person who tried to raise the alarm.

We need to give meaning to the seven “Nolan principles” of public life – named after Lord Nolan, who was the first chair of the independent committee that collated them in the 1990s: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. It is the role of those who sit on organisational boards to hold executive officers to account, to challenge their thinking and probe their actions. During the Post Office Inquiry, it was suggested that Paula Vennells was too ready to adopt “lines to take”, parroting words she was fed by officials and junior staff. Whether speaking in parliament or elsewhere, those who hold office, or exercise leadership, have a responsibility to ensure that what they say is true. They will help save the nation by remembering they are there to serve it. 

This article is part of the series “How to fix a nation

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