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Perspectives From Wales on a System in Crisis

Austerity continues to impact the criminal justice process in England and Wales: police numbers are down, the Crown Prosecution Service is in disarray, legal aid has been reduced, courts are closing and magistrates are leaving.

Research into the criminal process usually focuses on England, however this book offers a rare insight into South Wales. Drawing on first-hand accounts of lawyers, police, suspects, and the convicted and their families, it uncovers how these affected individuals navigate the challenges caused by austerity, what has changed and what can be done to improve the system.

This book is a reliable and evocative account of the reality of criminal justice in Wales.

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This book is about criminal justice under austerity. It tells the stories of how those who work in or go through the criminal justice system experience criminal justice. In telling these stories, we focus on voices from Wales. Wales is the site of this research and the book provides a snapshot of how criminal justice is experienced in Wales at a time of austerity. Wales has been too often ignored in consideration of the criminal justice system of England and Wales, so we offer the insights of those with whom we spoke in south Wales to provoke fresh dialogue about criminal justice in the country. We hope the experiences we present will inform discussions about criminal justice in Wales, and across England and Wales.

We began this research at an event listening to heartfelt accounts regarding police racial profiling and the frustrations of the working class community in the heart of Cardiff’s former docks area, once known as Tiger Bay (one of the UK’s first multicultural communities). The event was the first public meeting of the Commission on Justice in Wales,1 and was held at the Butetown Community Centre, a location resolutely part of the local community and thus challenging some received notions of the justice system having become detached from the people it serves. The meeting was billed as an equality and engagement event for the first review in over 200 years into the operation of the justice system in Wales.

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The criminal justice system of England and Wales has long been in decline. According to the solicitors’ professional body – the Law Society – the system is now ‘crumbling’ (Law Society, 2019), and The Secret Barrister (2018) – an anonymous, best-selling legal blogger – has deemed the law to be ‘broken’. In recent times, budget cuts have also been made to the police service, the courts, the CPS and other criminal justice institutions such as prisons. Criminal defence lawyers have seen their fees stagnate or reduce. Defendants have been both compelled to participate in the criminal process and prevented from doing so (Owusu-Bempah, 2017). Some accused have been left to face the criminal process unaided (see Gibbs, 2016). Within the frame of neoliberalism, the criminal process has also become more managerialist and more punitive, adding further to the challenges.

In this chapter we examine the impact of austerity and neoliberalism on the criminal process, also examining some of the policies affecting criminal justice in England and Wales. Neoliberalism, in particular, has resulted in punitive excess and responsibilization, aimed particularly towards the poor and disenfranchised (Garland, 2001; Wacquant, 2009; Bell, 2011). Austerity has forced ‘violence’ upon marginalized groups such as asylum seekers and the street-homeless (Cooper and Whyte, 2017). We contribute further to these debates by examining how the state has failed – or has deliberately decided not – to properly support those within the criminal process, namely those who require – and are thus denied – access to justice.

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In the preceding chapter we set out the impact of neoliberal austerity on criminal justice in England and Wales broadly. The specific focus on the impacts on the police, courts, and criminal legal aid in Wales provided context for the views expressed by participants, who found themselves within a damaged and declining criminal justice system. Such detail grounds this chapter, in which we introduce readers to the participants and draw out how they have experienced criminal justice. Experiences are at the heart of this study; in this chapter we set up the remainder of the book by examining some of the stories of those whose insight and expertise inform our analysis.

To be able to reach an informed view on the experiences explored in the following chapters, it is important to provide the perspectives of the participants in this research. For Newman (2013a: 2) ‘debates around criminal justice are necessarily enthused with an array of values, ideologies and interpretive frameworks’ meaning that ‘any discussion of criminal justice requires that the speaker articulates the choices they have made regarding its purpose’. By this line, the standpoint of those discussing criminal justice is significant and they should never be assumed to approach the subject impartially or neutrally. Such an assumption would be flawed as criminal justice is not merely a theoretical endeavour; criminal justice matters are firmly located within real-life situations, and replete with social contexts and personal implications. Indeed, there are many biases inherent in this study: values inform so much of how we view criminal justice – for Lacey (1994: 34) these are the ‘normative implications’ of discussing criminal justice – that it is necessary to explore these early on.

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In the preceding chapter we examined the stories of those involved in the research, detailing how they came into the criminal justice system – whether as practitioners or as an accused or family member. This included drawing out key themes such as the impact of underfunding on criminal justice institutions and the role played by the accuseds’ level of previous contact with the criminal justice system. We build thereon in this chapter by focusing on the place – south Wales, two decades into the 21st century – adding a further layer of detail that is crucial to understanding the experiences of criminal justice examined in this book. Just as the stories of the participants are important in understanding the experiences that we relay and analyse, so too are the stories that emerge from considering the region in which our research took place.

Criminal justice research has largely neglected the issue of place as a core consideration (Newman, 2016a).1 This may sometimes be due to ethical requirements such as the assurance of anonymity, but it may also arise out of concerns regarding ‘case studies’ being discounted through the desire to demonstrate generalizability.2 Our work is informed by a legal geography approach,3 investigating the co-constitutive but uneasy relationship between people, place and law (Bennett and Layard, 2015). In this chapter – expanding on detail from Chapter 1 (outlining the case for Wales as a site of criminal justice study) and Chapter 2 (describing south Wales and charting some of the impacts of criminal justice cuts) – we focus on the region of south Wales.

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In the previous chapter we assessed how criminal justice issues played out in south Wales as the location of our study, thus outlining the context of the experiences at the heart of this book. The chapter detailed defining features of the space and the time of this location, such as the relatively small scale of the criminal cases and the impact of austerity on an issue such as court closures. In this chapter we flesh out the specific criminal justice experiences that occurred in south Wales, considering the pressures that practitioners faced in their practice. These pressures frame the experience of practitioners and, in turn, shape the experience of the accused.

Criminal legal aid is subject to lower remuneration levels than other areas of legal practice; criminal legal aid lawyers have typically been viewed as ‘low status’ compared with other lawyers (Sommerlad, 1995; 1996; 2001).1 Those practising in legally aided criminal defence work are becoming increasingly deprofessionalized in relation to the tasks that they must undertake and their role in relation to the court. They are required to engage with increasingly formulaic processes; restrictions are placed on the initiative that they may seek to take. Their remuneration has stagnated and been reduced; the financial value placed on their work is limited. Within these circumstances, legally aided criminal defence lawyers have been labelled ‘alienated workers’ (Newman, 2016b; Newman and Welsh, 2019); their diminishing profession attracts little wider respect and internalizes negative messages. Alienated workers may feel powerless and time deprived, making their work inherently more stressful (Boni-Le Goff et al, 2020).

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In the previous chapter, we considered some of the pressures that criminal justice practitioners faced and the resultant negative impact on the criminal process. The chapter examined problems stemming from inadequate legal aid and the way that this undermined criminal legal practice. In this chapter, we consider how those pressures impact upon relationships – operating within the parameters imposed by underfunding – between different parties in the criminal process.

Within this chapter we examine the experiences of ‘others’ in the criminal process, specifically those accused of committing criminal offences, interrogating how various parties within the criminal process understood their own experiences and those of others. The roles of actors within the criminal justice system may have a bearing on the values within the system (McConville and Marsh, 2014). In particular, the shift between ‘due process’ to ‘criminal control’ has signalled an anti-accused ideology with increasing police corruption, decreasing evidential standards, lawyers’ antagonism towards clients, harsher sentences, and inducements for guilty pleas (McConville and Marsh, 2014). Indeed, previous research has pointed towards the need to investigate interactions between key actors in a holistic manner (Newman and Ugwudike, 2013).1 Through examining interactions and relationships, we can understand how the process is experienced and, crucially, how it operates.

A prominent subject emerging from our research is how important it is for good relations to be built between various actors. While individuals and parties to the process may hold different worldviews and possess varying responsibilities, it was evident that essential to the functioning of the criminal justice system was the establishment of some common ground.

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The previous chapter looked at the relationships at the heart of the criminal justice system to draw out how criminal justice works in practice. We looked at working relationships and lawyer–client relationships, and, while the accused were considered, the practitioners who mediate the accused’s experiences of justice were at the fore. In this chapter, our focus switches to the accused and the family members, and their relation to the criminal justice system. Placing these voices at the forefront of the chapter gives more depth to understandings of the lawyer–client relationship and, thereon, of what it is to experience the criminal justice system.

The opportunity to combine the voices of defendants and practitioners in the criminal justice system and to analyse their experiences was a key motivation for this study. Kendall (2018), for example, has argued that suspects’ voices need to be better integrated into criminal justice accounts, and Jacobson et al (2016) have presented the court process as anxiety inducing and confusing for defendants, thus highlighting the need to consider the experiences of court users. Yet, undoubtedly, in part, owing to issues of access, the accused’s experience is under-researched within criminal justice studies, particularly those centred on questions of access to criminal justice. Yow (2018) has argued that research can have positive emotional impacts on interviewees, and Mitchell (2019) suggests that sharing painful stories with an ‘enlightened witness’ during interview can help start the healing process after a trauma. Many of the accused and their families told us how much they appreciated being listened to; it is important to our mission for us to centre their voices here.

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In this chapter we draw together our findings and point towards the future for research on both criminal justice more broadly, during and after austerity, as well as, specifically, criminal justice in Wales. Thus far, we have told the story of how austerity has impacted upon individuals’ experiences of criminal justice, examining thereafter the impacts on criminal defence, particularly that which is legally aided, and on other justice institutions such as the courts, the prosecution and the police. Our focus has been on how criminal justice has been experienced in Wales, and while our data is in some ways specific to south Wales, there are also many findings that can be generalized beyond Wales and to the whole of the England and Wales jurisdiction. Such findings may also be relevant to other jurisdictions that are facing difficulties in the wake of budget cuts and efficiency measures.

In Chapter 1 we explored the historical, cultural, geographic, socio-economic and legal landscapes in Wales and how they compare with England. We argued that criminal justice research must be conducted in Wales and should take account of locality given its impact on how justice is served and experienced. In Chapter 2 we explored the impact of austerity, and more deep-rooted neoliberalism, in England and Wales, while thereafter exploring the specific impact on Wales itself. Chapter 2 also detailed vulnerability theory – which underpins the research and will be considered again in this chapter – and the ways in which the theory prompts consideration of the implications for experiences of the criminal process and the ability of individuals to achieve justice.

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The post-financial crisis politics of austerity have required police forces to make unprecedented savings at a rapid pace. In response, some forces have turned to the market, outsourcing back office and frontline functions to commercial enterprises which promise to deliver the same service (or more) for less. This trend has unsurprisingly captured the attention of policing scholars who have begun to explore issues of policy, politics, accountability and service delivery in outsourced areas. This chapter adds another variable into the equation: labour force vulnerability. Specifically, it compares vulnerability in outsourced and non-outsourced frontline roles in police custody suites. It argues that in addition to traditional police labour force vulnerabilities such as the inherent complexity of police work, limited resources, lack of training and feeling over-scrutinised, those working in austerity-era outsourced roles may also suffer from identity crises, unwanted media attention and a particular kind of prejudice from detainees. In so doing, it makes a new contribution to the emergent literature on police outsourcing.

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