Review: The Welsh Criminal Justice System: On the Jagged Edge by Robert Jones and Richard Wyn Jones
Three years ago, the Commission on Justice in Wales (chaired by Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, the former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales) published its report.
‘Justice in Wales for the People of Wales’ set out a detailed critique of how the justice system in Wales was functioning and in particular how the division of legislative and executive competencies between the UK level and the Wales level poses serious challenges to the quality of that system and associated public services, despite the sterling efforts of the relevant agencies to work across the ‘jagged edge’ of the constitutional divide.
It made a number of recommendations, including that the restrictions on the Senedd’s being able to legislate on matters relating to justice should be removed.
Three years on, little has been done to address the report’s conclusions. The Brexit crisis and coronavirus have preoccupied the administrations in Cardiff and London alike.
The UK Government appears firm in its resolve not to act, and the recent report by Gordon Brown’s Commission on the UK’s future acknowledged the issue, but did not really engage with it, perhaps not wishing to anticipate the conclusions of the cross-party commission established by the Welsh Government and chaired by Rowan Williams and Laura McAllister.
This new book by Robert Jones and Richard Wyn Jones from the Wales Governance Centre Cardiff University is therefore a timely reminder of the urgent need to address this issue.
The book combines some painful original research data about how things have been working in Wales (or not) with trenchant analysis and a characteristically robust challenge to the assumptions of opponents, and indeed some proponents, of change.
The data tell us some uncomfortable truths, whatever your views are of devolution. For example, Wales has the highest prison population per head (based on home address) not only in the UK, but in Western Europe; for women prisoners Wales has the third highest (after Spain and Portugal), despite the fact that there is no women’s prison in Wales.
The authors rightly ask why do courts in Wales, applying the same sentencing guidelines, produce consistently harsher outcomes. They have no firm answer to this question, nor indeed to many others which stem from the data they have collected. That is not, however, surprising.
Most of that data only came to light as a result of the strenuous and untiring efforts of the authors, and in particular Dr. Rob Jones, in prising out of UK Government and other official bodies Wales-specific information which had previously featured only as part of England and Wales aggregated data.
The graphs, tables and commentary in the second chapter of this book set things out clearly and starkly. Those wishing to be well-informed about criminal justice in Wales should study them.
Disaggregation of data is only the starting point for serious study of criminal justice in Wales and (it is to be hoped) for a deeper involvement by policy-makers, practitioners and academics in understanding and getting to grips with the causes of some shocking facts which have been lurking in the thick undergrowth of England and Wales statistics.
But this book is about more than the disaggregation of data. It is also about the need to disaggregate the criminal justice system itself. This need is placed in the context of a broader discussion of the idiosyncrasies of how the Welsh devolution settlement has developed.
Here, Richard Wyn Jones is picking up a thread from his (and Roger Scully’s) scathing account of the false turnings and compromises which led up to the 2011 referendum on greater law-making powers for the (then) Assembly (see ‘Wales says yes’ (University of Wales Press 2012), Chapter 2 ‘The unlikely survival of the platypus: constitution building in Wales’).
Once more, the anomalous position of Wales is emphasised and questioned.
The authors do this by reflecting on how the ‘Westminster model’ of government, with its ‘three-legged stool’ of legislature, executive and judiciary, is blithely accepted as a norm, but not for Wales.
Part of the strength of the Thomas Commission report was the subtle way in which the need for a distinct Welsh legal system was introduced.
It was presented sotto voce as the inevitable necessary consequence of the reforms needed in order to enable criminal justice policy and service delivery in Wales to function efficiently in a devolved context.
While sharing and echoing many of the Commission’s concerns, as well as raising new ones, this book nevertheless takes a different approach.
It sets out front and centre as a matter of principle as well as pragmatism the need to reform the Welsh devolution settlement to place it on the same footing as Scotland.
In the context of that approach, perhaps the most revealing parts of this work (aside from the statistical data) are the extensive excerpts from anonymised interviews with people from Wales who have been working on criminal justice policy and related matters.
Their accounts of how Wales and its needs are dealt with by those Whitehall departments that are nominally responsible for criminal justice in Wales reveal at best forgetful ignorance and at worst uncaring disdain.
Change, it is suggested, can only happen if these attitudes towards Wales and their associated practices are jettisoned.
The message from this book is that neither laissez faire nor gradualism will achieve that break, which is a necessary shock to ensure that we in Wales take responsibility, and take things seriously.
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