North East justice system in chaos, warns Lord Beecham

The North East's criminal justice system is in turmoil because of cuts and outsourcing, the former leader of Newcastle City Council warns

Lord Jeremy Beecham
Lord Jeremy Beecham

The criminal justice system in the North East is in chaos because of an “ideologically driven” drive to privatise public services and a series of “botched and expensive re-organisations”, a peer has warned.

Lord Beecham, the former leader of Newcastle City Council, hit out at the Government’s changes in a House of Lords debate.

He highlighted the Journal’s report that there had been a massive increase in the number of people representing themselves in family law courts, thanks to cuts in legal aid - leading to lengthy delays.

The proportion of North East parents attempting to make do without a lawyer in court has leapt from 34% to 53% of litigants since the removal of legal aid from family lawyers in April 2013. It means that proceedings are delayed as judges attempt to explain how the law works to parents.

And local law firms warn that parents taking part in child custody cases, and other cases involving the welfare of children, are failing to explain their case properly to courts.

Lord Beecham urged the Ministry of Justice to act. He said: “As many of us warned, the cuts in legal aid are having a serious effect on family and especially child-related proceedings.

“The Journal newspaper reported on Saturday a rise of 61% in people representing themselves, with the predictable result of serious delays.”

He also highlighted the riot in a North East prison which saw 50 inmates take over a wing at HMP Northumberland in March.

One inmate has written to prisoners’ magazine Inside Time to claim the riot was down to frustration at staff shortages which had put a stop to some workshops.

Lord Beecham pointed out that the prison, previously known as HMP Acklington, was run by a private contractor.

He said: “Also in the North East we have had the experience of a prison riot at the newly privatised Acklington Prison where 130 staff left, about a third of the total.

“The prison is now managed by Sodexo, one of those oligopolies assumed by the Government to be capable of running any public service.”

And the Labour peer, who led Newcastle City Council from 1977 to 1994, attacked proposals to split up the probation service.

Regional probation services will be replaced by a national service responsible for “high risk” offenders while private firms will run Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) which manage lower risk offenders.

The Northumbria Branch of trade union Napo, which represents probation officers, had written to the Ministry of Justice to raise concerns about “job security, workload, increased management spans, reduced support from human resources and especially the transfer of cases and the split between risk categories,” he said.

“They are worried about the risk to public safety as a result of the split and point to bureaucratic delays in transfers, with existing users being transferred and high risk offenders going to new officers.”

And Lord Beecham warned that outsourcing of child protection services could cause further problems.

He said: “The Government launched a consultation, lasting all of six weeks about plans to permit local authorities to outsource children’s social services to the likes of G4S and Serco.”

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