The Prime Minister has fired the starting gun for six weeks of campaigning and it is our job to ensure that the justice sector gets a fair share of airtime as the parties battle it out.

Justice is often the forgotten frontline public service. It receives just 1% of total government spending, compared to health (16%) and education (7%), and spending on justice in real terms per person has fallen by 22% since 2009/10.

And yet, it is a public service that has never been more important. In the week that the election was called we saw a damning report from the National Audit Office concluding that the government will not be able to reduce the Crown Court backlog to its target of 53,000 cases by March 2025 and we read news headlines reporting on the prisons being at capacity with rather desperate management measures of Operation Early Dawn, increasing early release to 70 days, and adjustments by the police of arresting and charging policy. All symptoms of a criminal justice policy that is at a ‘dead end’.

I spoke out when the Ministry of Justice wrongly – and somewhat absurdly – blamed the criminal barristers’ action in 2022 for causing the prison population crisis. The true cause is a long-term hike in the demands that government has placed on the criminal justice system as a matter of policy choice – additional offences and longer sentences – while at the same time starving it of the resources needed to meet even existing demands.

Something has to change.

In June we launched our own ‘Manifesto for justice’ – setting out the policies we believe are needed and making a clear request for the sustained investment that will be required. I hope you will take a look at our manifesto and consider how you might engage your local candidates and secure their commitment to improving and investing in the justice system in the next Parliament. It will be hard to achieve, but a new approach is palpably required and one that requires courage from those charged with government.

Banking the small victories

Our manifesto identifies the level of investment that will be needed for the whole justice sector, but in the meantime, we continue to take every opportunity to secure additional funding where we can.

We continue to make evidence-based arguments for additional budget in priority areas – RASSO (rape and serious sexual offences), civil legal aid and government panel fees (the latter recently highlighted in an excellent report by ALBA: the Constitutional and Administrative Law Bar Association).

Sometimes we have to bank the small wins and I was pleased to work with the Family Law Bar Association to secure a 10% increase in fees for qualified legal representatives, the ‘sticking plaster’ scheme that is intended to avoid the situation of alleged abusers cross-examining alleged victims in family law cases, following the evisceration of family legal aid of a decade ago. I suspect it will not be enough to secure full coverage by the Bar of these cases, but it is a step in the right direction.

I am grateful to the members and staff of our Remuneration Committee who put together the detailed papers that help us to get these decisions over the line with Ministry of Justice and Treasury officials.

Judicial independence

One clear call that you would expect to see in any Bar Council manifesto is for the next government to uphold and promote the rule of law. It really shouldn’t need to be said but in the past few years the UK’s score in the World Justice Project Rule of Law Index has slowly declined.

This deterioration has been ongoing since, at least, 2016, with the infamous failure of the then Lord Chancellor, Liz Truss to speak up for the senior judiciary when pictured under the headline ‘Enemies of the People’ on the front page of one national newspaper. Sadly, a number of recent events still demonstrate that we all must remain vigilant, especially over judicial independence. So far this year, the government announced that 150 judges would be deployed in immigration cases including working evenings and weekends – clear political interference in the allocation of judges which is a matter exclusively for the judiciary; the Safety of Rwanda Act overturned a finding of fact by the Supreme Court; and the Post Office exoneration legislation – while laudable in its aims – by-passed judicial process altogether in the quashing of the sub-postmaster and mistress convictions.

Each incident chips away at judicial independence. The judiciary has the full support of the Bar in defending and promoting the separation of powers – and, whoever wins this general election, we will continue to speak up.

I will be presenting the highlights of our manifesto in my speech at Bar Conference on 8 June. I do hope to see some of you there.