This is quite a substantial Bill which the Government claims will “pave the way for the biggest overhaul of prisons in a generation and the delivery of a world-class court system”
The Bill covers: prison safety and reform, court reform, the judiciary and whiplash compensation. Here are the main proposals…
- A greater emphasis on rehabilitating offenders in prison as well as punishing them for their crimes.
- Prison Governors will take control of budgets for education, employment and health and they will be held to account for getting people off drugs, into jobs and learning English and maths.
- Recruiting more prison officers and creating new senior positions for experienced prison officers to be promoted into. These posts will cover specialist mental health training.
- Extending the use of virtual hearings in court, allowing the victim to take part without having to come face-to-face with their assailant, and ending the practice whereby victims of domestic violence can be cross-examined by their abuser.
- Using the internet for lesser offences (such as failure to produce a train ticket) so people can plead guilty, be issued with a fine and pay that fine online, which would speed up the process and reduce administration costs.
- Modernising the court environment and providing better information technology for judges and staff.
- Giving judges greater flexibility in taking on cases and handling backlogs.
- Car insurance premiums will be cut by around £40 a year, with new fixed tariffs capping whiplash compensation pay-outs and a ban on claims without medical evidence.
Before the last General Election, the Conservative manifesto promised prison reforms, then in the Queen’s Speech in 2016 it was announced that a Prisons and Courts Reform Bill would be introduced. The Prison Safety and Reform White Paper was published in November 2016 and set out the Government’s plans to bring the courts up to date with modern technology, and to emphasise rehabilitating offenders with a view to “driving down the £15 billion annual cost to society of reoffending”.
This Bill is published at a time when self-inflicted deaths are at a record high, with 119 prisoners killing themselves in 2016, and prisons in England and Wales are widely acknowledged to have serious problems with drugs and violence. This Bill will hold Prison Governors to account for getting prisoners off drugs, into education and enforcing a greater discipline in prisons. It would also give them the power to ask mobile operators to disrupt the signal of mobile phones if they think a prisoner is using it for illegal activities.
The Bill would also provide the framework for a massive investment in the courts service with provision of information technology allowing remote hearings, protecting vulnerable witnesses, and streamlining the system that handles minor penalty offences. This should make the courts quicker and easier to use, and should equip judges with all the systems they need to handle diverse cases more efficiently.
The changes proposed to the whiplash claims for road accidents are a reaction to the fact that whiplash claims are 50% higher than a decade ago, despite the UK having some of the safest roads in Europe and a fall in the number of accidents. The blame for this has been placed with certain claims companies that have encouraged fraudulent claims, which in turn has driven up the cost of motor insurance.
This is a Government Bill from the Justice Secretary, Elizabeth Truss MP.
As with so many Bills, there could well be cries of “too little too late” from opposition parties about this Bill. There have been four Conservative Justice Secretaries since 2005, and the prison population has increased in that time.
The measures in this Bill that protect vulnerable witnesses from having to face cross examination in front of their alleged assailant are broadly welcomed.
The modernisation of the courts service is also deemed to be long overdue and will probably receive cross-party support.
The devil will be in the detail of this Bill. Transferring certain powers to prison governors may be seen as the Government passing the buck in some quarters, and it will be interesting to see the reaction from prison staff themselves.
The plans to handle minor offences in a sort of “online court” may well speed up the process, but we can expect some criticism that this may remove lawyers from the process which could mean that people do not have the best, if any, legal advice.
How to get involved
You can contact your own MP, or the Ministry of Justice.
It is likely that some pressure groups and charities will want to have their say on some of these measures once they have digested the details. We will summarise their arguments here when we get them.
If I don’t act, will it go through?
This is a Government Bill, so it is highly likely that it will go through.