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A Welsh Government publication issued today highlights the increasing development of a distinct Welsh justice policy based on prevention through tackling social challenges and rehabilitation, instead of a more punitive approach.

In ‘Delivering Justice for Wales’, Counsel General, Mick Antoniw, and Minister for Social Justice, Jane Hutt, say that the underlying reasons for pressures on the justice system can only be addressed by taking a preventative, holistic and inclusive approach.

Launching the publication today, the Counsel General said:

“The only sustainable way to improve the justice system is to reduce the number of people coming into contact with it. Our publication sets out the innovative ways in which we are using the powers we have, including early intervention to steer people away from the criminal justice system, and how we would seek to build on that through a fully devolved justice system.

“But the policies of successive UK governments since 2010 have firmly pulled the shutters down on access to justice, threatened fundamental rights and protections, and removed vital funding.

Antoniw told Legal News Wales that the publication ‘isn’t a point scoring exercise for devolution’ but delivering justice in Wales differently, in an integrated way. He said:

“Justice is really the what enables us as a society to work together, with the confidence of people and communities and we know we can do better and make it fairer for the people of Wales. Legislative justice, the administration of justice, the delivery of justice, and social justice go hand-in-hand now with devolved government and naturally fall into place with a devolved justice system.

“It’s not about making a turf war…it’s about delivering an integrated justice system for the people of Wales. We are almost going back to the roots of what justice is about what the law is about.”

He added that a devolved focus should look at some of the core issues that result in people getting involved in the justice system in the first place, rather than a focusing too strongly on imprisonment, rising prison populations, and penalties.

Recent progress

The publication states that an effective justice system in Wales requires sustained support for the legal sector and economy of Wales. The report outlines what the Welsh Government has achieved since the Thomas Commission’s report, which includes having:

  • Worked with the legal sector to establish the Law Council of Wales
  • Invested £3.9 million of European Regional Development Funds in the Legal Innovation Lab Wales
  • Provided funding to enable law firms and barristers’ chambers in Wales to gain cyber security accreditation
  • Issued a new apprenticeship framework to support two new CILEX qualifications in Wales, at paralegal and advanced paralegal levels
  • supported an amendment of the Civil Procedure Rules to require claims brought in the Administrative Court against Welsh public bodies challenging the lawfulness of their decisions to be issued and heard in Wales.

The publication then outlines what the Welsh Government plans to do:

  • Work in partnership with the Law Council of Wales and the wider legal sector to identify key actions to improve the sustainability of the legal sector in Wales
  • Commission a workforce skills needs analysis to consider the case for funding solicitor apprenticeships
  • Take forward a working group on growing the public law Bar in Wales
  • Continue to make the case for an appropriate replacement for Cardiff Civil Justice Centre

Antoniw continues to champion for the replacement of the Cardiff Civil Justice Centre, explaining that its current, ‘absolutely lamentable state of the Centre is totally unsuitable and not fit for purpose’, and that it affects the perception of justice in Wales. He added:

“If we had a devolved justice system, I do not believe that we would allow to have a situation where a capital city offers a court that bears almost no comparison with the Civil Justice centres in any of the other major capitals of the United Kingdom, or any major city of the United Kingdom.”

The role of the legal sector

The legal sector may well be expected to play its part in improving access to justice, not only in terms of public education but also engaging with the Law Council of Wales and the apprenticeship and business development opportunities offered by Business Wales, and in conjunction with The Law Society and CILEx. Antoniw said:

“Access to justice is one of those fundamental principles that has really been lost. So many of our communities, so many people who are engaged in the justice system are disempowered. In order for that to be tackled, you have to actually have sustained economically sustainable law firms – from those that work within the legal aid sector to the development of a vibrant commercial sector.

“The establishment of the Law Council of Wales was one of the recommendations of Thomas Commission and it really is a significant development. It brings all those aspects of the profession together to look at issues of Welsh law, training, education, and the profession itself.”

The publication says that devolution of justice to Wales is ‘inevitable’, and sets out the core components of what a devolved justice system would look like. This would include:

  • Focusing on prevention and rehabilitation.
  • Reducing the size of the prison population by pursuing alternatives to custody where appropriate, such as programmes to address mental health issues and support with treatment for drug and alcohol misuse.
  • Taking a rights based approach to law and policy making, and expanding the incorporation of internationally agreed rights’ standards into domestic law.

‘Delivering Justice for Wales’ also states that in overseeing a devolved justice system the Welsh Government would give the highest priority to tackling the national crisis of male violence against women, and the shockingly low levels of convictions for rape and sexual assault. Later today the Welsh Government will publish an updated Violence against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence strategy, outlining what will be done to make Wales the safest place to be a woman.

These components would build substantially on what the Welsh Government is already delivering within the current constitutional constraints. This includes additional crime prevention funding of £22m annually for 600 PCSOs; the provision of 13 remote court hearing facilities across Wales for victims of violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence; a Family Drug and Alcohol Court pilot in Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan; and investment in the Single Advice Fund which has helped 81,000 people gain additional income of £32m and manage debts totalling over £10m.

Antoniw remarked:

“I think we are already moving into hybrid, devolved justice system. It’s just that the structures, the mechanics, are not quite there yet. Some of them we will achieve through things like the reform of the tribunal system, in accordance with the Law Commission recommendations, and others we have set out in this publication.

“We will continue to use the levers at our disposal to pursue a whole-system, person-centred approach to justice. And we look forward to justice and policing being devolved to Wales so we can accelerate this work and deliver a better system for citizens, communities and businesses across Wales.”

The Minister for Social Justice added:

“The clear conclusion of the independent Commission on Justice in 2019 was that policies and decisions about justice need to be determined and delivered in Wales, so they align with the distinct and developing social, health, social justice and education policy and services in Wales and the growing body of Welsh law. By joining up the justice system with the rest of Welsh policy making we can find truly effective ways of reducing crime.

“Our work on the Youth Justice and Women’s Justice Blueprints, and violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence, show what can be done collaboratively to develop services tailored to the Welsh context.

“As it stands, however, the savings we make for courts or prisons – for example through PCSOs being successful in crime prevention – are not being reinvested in Wales. Devolution must happen so all this money can be reinvested in meeting Wales’s urgent needs.”

On future plans for justice reform within the current constraints, Ministers confirmed that they will:

  • Consider the case for a Welsh Human Rights Bill
  • Work in partnership with the new Law Council of Wales to improve the sustainability of the legal sector in Wales, especially in rural and post-industrial areas.
  • Create a unified, single structurally independent system of tribunals in Wales (as recommended by the December 2021 Law Commission report on devolved tribunals)

To read the full publication, click here.