Plaid Cymru’s Peredur Owen Griffiths has said being tied to the English criminal justice system has denied legal representation to vast swathes of the population.
The Member of the Senedd for South Wales East also said that English criminal justice system has overseen large cuts to police numbers, leaving many forces in Wales with difficult budget decisions.
Peredur was making the points during a Plaid Cymru debate in the Senedd on devolving the justice system to Wales, as is the case in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Even the city of Manchester has greater autonomy over policing than Wales has due to the powers granted to the office of mayor.
Plaid Cymru has long advocated for the devolution of the criminal justice system to enable law and order policy to better reflect the needs of Welsh communities.
The Plaid Cymru motion included making Welsh police forces fully accountable to the Senedd and for a distinct Welsh legal system to be established.
While Labour in Wales agreed with statement that “there is no rational basis” for Wales to be an outlier, they put in an amendment that deletes the requirement for them to take immediate action to correct this anomaly.
During his contribution, Peredur said: “Cuts to the justice department’s budget in Whitehall have precipitated a disastrous decline in the provision of legal aid across Wales and England.
“Indeed, the Law Society has recently taken this Government to court for failing to uphold the recommendation of the Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid to increase legal aid fees by a minimum of 15%.
“For example, between 2012 and 2022, the number of provider offices for litigators in Wales has decreased from 175 to 106, from 180 to 122 for advocates, from 248 to 160 for solicitor firms and from 54 to 29 for Not-for-Profit Organisations.
“This situation is compounded by the fact that the legal workforce in Wales is also an aging one – as such it is inevitable we will witness further shrinkages in the provision of legal services over the coming years.
“In North Wales, 48% of criminal duty solicitors are over 50, 49% are over 50 in South Wales, 62% in West Wales, 64% in Mid Wales.
“Another consequence of cutbacks to the justice budget in Westminster has been the emergence of the so-called ‘advice deserts’ - areas of very low coverage in terms of legal advice centres on issues such as community care, welfare, education and immigration.
“In this respect the landscape of legal services in Wales is particularly barren. Latest figures (March 2023) from the Law Society show that 18 of the 22 Welsh local authorities do not possess a single community care legal aid centre, 20 of 22 do not possess an educational legal aid centre and 21 of 22 do not possess a welfare legal aid centre.
“Given the fact that such centres are often a lifeline for poorer households which would otherwise be priced out from legal counsel, the veritable desertification of Wales in this respect risks baking in existing inequalities within our justice system.”
He added: “We should also consider the extent to which decisions in Westminster are inflicting enormous pressures on the budgets of our police forces.
“All four police forces in Wales are having to make efficiency savings over the next few years, with South Wales Police currently facing a £20m shortfall in its budget.
“The police precept element of council taxes has also increased substantially this year to counteract cuts to central funding – by 5.14% in North Wales, by 6.78% in Gwent, by 7.4% in South Wales and by 7.75% in Dyfed-Powys.
“We therefore have the shameful scenario in which the people of Wales are having to fork out more of their hard-earned money in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis to compensate for the centralisation of spending decisions in the hands of austerity-obsessed ideologues in Westminster.”
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