Harriet Harman

Member of Parliament for Camberwell and Peckham. Mother of the House of Commons.

Urban Justice: Delivering Justice - a matter of confidence

Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, Westminster

Thursday 8th July 2004

The Legal Secretariat to the Law Officers

Attorney General’s Chambers

9 Buckingham Gate


Tel: 020 7271 2400

E-mail: [email protected]


I’m grateful to have the opportunity to say a few words about the question of confidence in this conference about urban justice.


I’m concerned about this, looking at it from 2 angles in particular

·        As solicitor general – and therefore having ministerial responsibility, with the Attorney General, for the Crown Prosecution Service

·        As member of parliament for a wholeheartedly urban and multi ethnic area- Camberwell and Peckham


But whatever our particular responsibilities and interests – we can all recognise that confidence in the justice system is vital.


I want to say

·        Why it matters and

·        What we are doing, and need to do further, to increase and sustain confidence.



It’s vital that people have confidence in the criminal justice system because the alternative is

·        Fear and insecurity – people must be sure that the justice system can be relied upon to protect the safety of themselves, their family and their community

·        Resentment – people must have confidence that the justice system which can detain them, imprison them and take away their assets, is fair to them, working for them and not against them

·        Cynicism – the justice system is a public service.  People are paying for it and they want it to work efficiently and effectively.


People are entitled to have confidence in the Criminal Justice System –

-         in the values and laws on which the justice system is based and

-         the efficiency and effectiveness in the way it delivers


The starting point is the right legal framework –

·        the justice system must reflect enduring concerns such as the need to protect against assault and burglary

·        But it must not lag behind.  The law also has to change to respond to new challenges.

-         The spread of the internet has meant we have had to bring in new laws in the Sexual Offences Act to deal with child pornography and grooming over the internet – offences which were inconceivable a decade ago.

-         the wide gap between rich and poor countries and the increase in global air travel means that we have had to introduce new laws to tackle the exploitation of women and children through human trafficking

-         the recognition of the prevalence of domestic violence – its damaging effects on women and children brought up in violent households -  has been the impetus for us to introduce new laws not only to punish perpetrators but also to give more protection to those threatened by domestic violence.

-         International terrorism, financed and carried out internationally – has needed new laws including to freeze and seize the proceeds of crime


But getting the substantive law right – laws which will command confidence - is not a job just for government – or parliament alone.  Those of you in the criminal justice system play a key role in recognising new threats and identifying how the law needs to change to respond to them.


People will lack confidence in the system if no-one takes responsibility and agencies pass the buck. People cannot have confidence in one part of the system of they lack confidence in a different part.  They either have confidence in all – or in none.  That’s why it’s important that at local level – as well as across each area and nationally – police, prosecutors, courts, work together in partnership. It is no consolation to a victim where mugger escapes justice for the police to blame the CPS and the CPS to blame the courts.  Now - Borough Criminal Justice Boards, Local Criminal Justice Boards at area level and ministers and agency heads in the National Criminal Justice boards – we are all working together in partnership.  And this is crucial.


People will lack confidence if the justice system does not explain itself – Justice needs not only to be done but also to be seen to be done.  People expect to be told what’s going on in individual cases that concern them.  The old attitude of “leave it with me” will not do.  People want to know what will happen and when.  That’s why the new procedures to tell victims what’s going on in their case is so important.


People will lack confidence unless the justice system is independent and consistent.  The law needs to be enforced impartially, without fear or favour – even if to do so is to risk criticism.  Eg animal rights supporters are against animal experimentation.  But animal experimentation is perfectly lawful and the justice system must act against those who try and disrupt it.   The truth is that people respect the justice system when they see it acting impartially – even if it is attracting criticism for doing so. Scratch the surface of public opinion and there is a deep attachment to the principle of the independence of the prosecution service and of the courts.


People will lack confidence in the justice system if they think it’s unfair, discriminatory or unrepresentative.  It is vital that the law is applied equally in all communities. A criminal justice system which is overwhelmingly white and male will not command  confidence in today’s society in which women regard themselves as equal and a society which is multi cultural.  That’s why we need more women and ethnic minorities in the police, the prosecution service and in the judiciary.  (ref CPS law scholarship programme)


We need to enforce the law fairly and impartially – otherwise we will alienate the communities which the justice system is supposed to serve.  That is why it is right to look very carefully -  as the Home Office is – at what lies behind the great increase in police stop and search of people from the Muslim community.  Good community relations take constant and painstaking work.  After the McPherson report into the death of Stephen Lawrance much work was done in the Met – including in Southwark.  That was vital – and I saw it pay dividends when the police needed to investigate the awful death of Damilola Taylor.  They had to do house to house enquiries.  They had to stop cars at road blocks and stop people in the street.  Yet overwhelmingly, the local community helped with the enquiry.  That would not have happened in the past in the same way.  The fact that, sadly, there was no conviction of anyone for that killing should not take away from the recognition of the strengthened police/community relations which had been built.


People’s confidence in the justice system will be based on what they experience.  If they are looked after when they are a victim – if the case goes ahead and runs smoothly – they will tell their friends and family.  People’s practical experience of the criminal justice system will be the most influential factor.  We must get it right not just because that is right in principle – but also because that is crucial to confidence.


And sentencing too, is vital for public confidence.  If a sentence is lenient – it needs to be explained.  The opportunity is there for magistrates and judges to thank those in the agencies and the victim and witnesses for the part they have played in bringing the offender before the courts.  That can be irrespective of the verdict and whether or not those referred to are physically there in court.  Above all, sentences need to be explained.  Particularly if it is lenient.


But if there is an unjustifiably lenient sentence in the Crown Court which will undermine public confidence, the Attorney General and I can, and often do, refer the case to the Court of Appeal for the sentence to be increased.


We must ensure that people are not given an overly pessimistic view of how the justice system is working.  But we must never overstate our progress.  Confidence must reflect the actual reality – not run ahead of where we have got to.


The justice system needs to command confidence of members of the public or it simply will not operate.  Without confidence – victims will not report, witnesses will not give evidence, lay people will not sit as magistrates and people will opt out of jury service.  The agencies alone cannot deliver justice – it depends on the support of the public.


There is now in society a greater reluctance to take things on trust and a lack deference to traditional institutions.  That is not an unhealthy trend.  No-one has an automatic right to respect All of us, and all institutions have to earn it on a daily basis.  Criticism needs to be understood and responded to.  Unfair criticism needs to be rebutted – but justified criticism needs to be acknowledged and changes implemented.


There has been much progress in improving the justice system and that will help win the confidence that is so vital.


It is a job for all of us – every agency and government at both local and national level.

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