Scales of justice
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23 October 2014
Those of you who studied 1984 by George Orwell will no doubt find it amusing that the Government has named its department that oversees constitutional issues the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).
If you did not get the reference, in Orwells society the Government names its departments with titles that actually mean the total opposite.
So, for example, the Ministry of Peace organised perpetual armed conflict, the Ministry of Love engaged in torture and the Ministry of Truth told lies.
What of the MoJ? Well fortunately for British citizens, on the whole, the new English MoJ is not seen as unjust.
Just over a month ago, on 9 May, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer now also known as the Secretary of State for Justice opened the doors of the MoJ for the first time, but not without controversy.
But lets forget the controversy for now and start with the creation of the MoJ. The ministry was formed from the merger of part of the Home Office and the now defunct Department of Constitutional Affairs (DCA).
The responsibilities that the MoJ has taken over from the Home Office include sentencing, prisons and rehabilitation, while from the DCA it looks after the courts and constitutional policies.
The MoJ employs more than 75,000 people, including 20,000 court staff and 49,000 prison staff.
With its legal wig on, the department has almost 600 court houses to deliver frontline services to 360 are magistrates courts, 226 county courts and 90 crown courts.
Magistrates courts alone dealt with 2.3 million defendants in criminal cases and 1.2 civil applications in 2006, while the crown courts disposed of 127,751 hearings and trials and county courts heard 1,975,560 claims.
With the wardens hat on, the MoJ is also directly responsible for 139 prisons and 42 local probation areas.
It looks after a prison population of more than 80,500 and deals with 200,000 probation cases daily, assisting courts with 246,000 pre-sentence reports and 20,000 bail information reports each year.
To fund this colossal task the MoJ has a budget of 8.8bn, 3bn of this going to the courts and legal aid.
The controversy started with the budget, as the judiciary felt that the courts would end up getting squeezed.
The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Phillips warns that court funding will be consumed by the Prison Service and has repeated calls for resources to be ring-fenced to protect the judiciary from interference.
Phillips LCJ, who speaks for the majority of the judiciary, says that the new ministry could become bogged down with its additional responsibilities, which may interfere with the court service.
He adds that the MoJ does not have in place "constitutional safeguards to protect the independence of the judiciary and the proper administration of justice", and will result in judges losing the independence they have gained through conventions.
Lord Falconer accepts that the judiciary is right to have concerns and is currently in negotiations with the judges, but observes: "[Phillips] does not object in principle to the creation of the Ministry of Justice."
Geoffrey Vos QC, chair of the Bar Council, says he supports a better-integrated ministry, but explains one of the concerns of the judiciary: The MoJ must not rob Peter to pay Paul."
"Funding of the judiciary cannot depend in any way on the crisis affecting the prison system," adds Vos.
Law reform and human rights group Justice has added to the demands for the new MoJ to ensure that it is just.
Justice calls on the Government to publish a memorandum of the rule of law obligations on the secretary of state for the proposed department, and wants Parliament to consider the implications of any proposed merger.
Justice director Roger Smith also warns that, in creating the new ministry, too much bias was afforded to the Home Office. He says: "Protection is needed for the continuing rule of law obligations of the new ministry."
But the MoJ does have its supporters. Michael Smyth, head of public policy at magic circle firm Clifford Chance, welcomes the new body and notes that the distinct separation of duties will allow the Government to focus its efforts.
"The move separates out the detection of crime from the justice system making the Home Office closer to a Continental European interior ministry and will allow the new Ministry of Justice to do what it says on the tin, namely supervising defendants through the trial and sentencing system," explains Smyth.
Further support comes from the Law Society, which represents solicitors in England and Wales. Law Society president Fiona Woolf says she is particularly in favour of the transfer of responsibility for criminal law and procedure to a dedicated minister, who will ensure "the fairness of the justice system as a whole".
The main responsibilities of the Ministry of Justice
Courts and the justice system
Human rights and information rights law
Protecting the public
Ensuring victims feel justice has been done
Who makes up the Ministry of Justice?
The Rt Hon Lord Falconer of Thoroton QC (Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice)
The Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC MP (Minister of State)
The Rt Hon David Hanson MP (Minister of State)
The Rt Hon Baroness Ashton of Upholland (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State)
Gerry Sutcliffe MP (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State)
Bridget Prentice MP (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State)
Vera Baird MP (Parliamentary Under Secretary