King’s Speech

Lord Thomas of Gresford Excerpts
Wednesday 8th November 2023

(7 months, 2 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Thomas of Gresford Portrait Lord Thomas of Gresford (LD)
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My Lords, I must express my sorrow at the loss of Igor Judge. We became friends 50 years ago, when I was trespassing from the Welsh circuit on to the Midlands circuit, in Shrewsbury and Birmingham. We had many a tussle at that time—and I hope to be able to say more about how I feel about Igor.

In his Statement to the House of Commons on 27 October, the Lord Chancellor, Alex Chalk, made some important concessions to common sense on the issue of short sentences. He said that prisons should not ruin the redeemable. A short stint in prison causes offenders to lose their homes, break contact with key support workers and, crucially, meet others inside prison who steer them in the wrong direction. This leads to more than 50% reoffending. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Bellamy, has confirmed these sentiments, and I wholeheartedly support their call for a presumption against short sentences.

However, Mr Chalk has had to balance this sensible reform by throwing red meat to the right wing of his party: he proposes mandatory life sentences for a wider spectrum of offences, removing the discretion of judges to do what they are paid to do—administer justice in a wide variety of circumstances. Further, he intends to abolish sentence remission in serious cases: no automatic reduction of sentence as a reward for good behaviour. I await the reaction of prison governors and the Prisoner Officers’ Association to the removal of the most powerful tool they have for maintaining safety and stability in our overcrowded prisons.

Mr Chalk is keen to build 20,000 new places in modern prisons. The current overcrowding of prisons is due, he says, to an increase in the remand population, amounting to 15,000 unconvicted prisoners locked up awaiting trial. I would welcome new prisons if the policy were joined to a commitment to pull down the 18th-century decaying and filthy jails we still employ. But the Lord Chancellor will burnish his reputation if he tackles the backlog with energy and commitment. Numbers of remand prisoners built up steadily following the austerity cuts of 2012 and reached a peak in mid-2022 of 89,000 cases awaiting trial, with 4,000 of these waiting for more than two years. The Government’s aim is to reduce the backlog from that peak to 53,000 cases by March 2025. That is a snail-like pace, and the reason for it is largely the lack of judges to preside and of barristers both to prosecute and defend. The pace has slowed. A freedom of information request in August 2022 indicated that, on average, fewer than 300 trials were completed per week between April and July 2022, compared with more than 350 per week in the previous year. Getting rid of the backlog is slowing down.

There is a dearth of Crown Court judges. In the last round of appointments, only two-thirds of the vacancies were filled, and as they are appointed, the pool of senior barristers diminishes. Mr Max Hill KC, the recently retired Director of Public Prosecutions, said that 500 trials in the current year could not go ahead on the scheduled date because no prosecuting barristers were available. He said that the CPS sometimes resorts to

“literally ringing round sets of barristers’ chambers, trying to place the brief”,


“These are difficult times. We do have an overloaded system, it’s not easy”.

The income of the criminal Bar diminished by some 40% in real terms after 2000, driving potential recruits away. My grandson at Cardiff University tells me that the majority of his fellow law students all want to be human rights lawyers. Well, you can starve doing that too. There is nothing more stimulating or exciting than the drama of a criminal trial, where the task on your shoulders is to persuade 12 persons of unknown backgrounds and experience to agree one way or the other to a verdict that will permanently affect the life of the individual and his family. That is a serious task, to be performed within a framework and discipline of strict principles of integrity and fairness, with the advocate’s duty to the court and to the law to the foremost. It calls for a multiplicity of talents.

The Lord Chancellor knows this from his own considerable experience. I urge him to do everything he can to refresh the profession and to recruit students of talent to the criminal Bar. He should encourage them, offer prizes for excellence and speak to them. That is better that than building prisons for people to rot in.