Criminal justice in the United Kingdom since 2010

Richard Garside
Wednesday, 15 October 2014

How are we to understand and explain what has been going on in criminal justice, across the United Kingdom, since the General Election in May 2010? Our UK Justice Policy Review project is engaged in answering this question.

To date we have published three UK Justice Policy Review annual reports. The first report covered the period May 2010 to May 2011; the second May 2011 to May 2012; and the third May 2012 to May 2013. UK Justice Policy Review 4 (May 2013 to May 2014) will be out next March.

The annual reports combine analysis of the main developments in policing, courts, prisons, probation and welfare with detailed data sections covering the main facts, figures and trends. They explain what happened in a given year, rather than trying to explain why it happened.

In the run up to the 2015 General Election we will be publishing 'The Coalition Years'. This special UK Justice Policy Review report will take a broader view, assessing criminal justice developments since 2010. It will seek to explain why the key criminal justice developments unfolded in the way that they did, complementing the annual reports' focus on the 'what?' questions.

In this article I explain where we have got to in this work. We are really keen to engage in discussion with others about our thinking. At the end of this piece there's a link to a web-page where you can share your thoughts with us.

It's complicated

Explaining criminal justice developments across the UK is complex, for at least three reasons.

  1. There is no unified UK criminal justice jurisdiction. The four UK regions of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have three separate criminal justice jurisdictions: England and Wales; Scotland; Northern Ireland. These different jurisdictions share much in common. There are certain family resemblances. They also differ in crucial respects.
  2. Political responsibility for criminal justice in the UK does not rest in one place or with one set of political institutions. The UK government and parliament are formally responsible only for criminal justice arrangements in England and Wales. Responsibility for criminal justice in Scotland and Northern Ireland rests with the Scottish Government and Parliament, and the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly.
  3. The sheer scale and complexity of criminal justice developments across the UK means an account of everything that happened would be impossible.

There is no single story of criminal justice developments across the UK during this, or any other, period. 

Governing strategies and system priorities

To help make sense of criminal justice developments in the UK I have therefore developed a dual framework, involving the distinctive governing strategies that characterise the different criminal justice jurisdictions, and the system priorities that are common to all jurisdictions.

'Governing strategies' refer to the underlying drivers of criminal justice developments during this period. There are four, related to the governing strategies in England and Wales (market-building), Scotland (nation-building), Northern Ireland (peace-building), and the UK government (austerity).

I summarise them in the table below.

United Kingdom


The direct and indirect impacts on criminal justice arrangements across the United Kingdom regions of the significant public spending reductions implemented by the coalition.

England and Wales


The reorganisation of criminal justice institutions along market lines, with the delivery of criminal justice services subject to price competitive tendering and related commissioning mechanisms.



The reorganisation of criminal justice institutions in line with the Scottish government project to establish a distinctive Scottish nation and a strong central government in Edinburgh.

Northern Ireland


The reorganisation of criminal justice institutions in line with the post-Good Friday Agreement agenda to establish an inclusive, non-sectarian Northern Ireland.

It is really important to remember that these different governing strategies are tendencies only. There were a number of drivers of criminal justice policy making across the three jurisdictions during this period. The governing strategies in England and Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland offer a simplifying framework to understand better some of the key criminal justice developments during this period, not a comprehensive framework explaining all criminal justice developments.

Overlaying and shaping them was the austerity strategy of the UK government, which saw it embark on a series of stringent spending cuts, justified on the grounds of restoring sound public finances following the financial crisis of the preceding years.

The governing strategies highlight the distinctiveness of approach across the three criminal justice jurisdictions. The second dimension of the organising framework – the 'system priorities' – tends more to drawing out the commonalities between the jurisdictions.

I am currently looking at three system priorities in particular:


Across the three jurisdictions there was major activity in relation policing. The outstanding development during this period was the establishment of a single, ‘national’ force in Scotland: Police Scotland. In England and Wales the establishment of directly elected Police and Crime Commissioners was the most high-profile development. The ongoing attempt to establish the Police Service of Northern Ireland as an inclusive, rather than ‘orange’, force characterised the entire period.

Community supervision

The probation service in England and Wales faced wholesale upheaval, with the semi-autonomous public probation trust model being replaced by community rehabilitation companies and a residual public national probation service. In Scotland the community justice authorities were reorganised along local authority lines, overseen by a potentially powerful national body. In Northern Ireland the probation service retained a technocratic flavour throughout the period.

Legal aid

Across all three criminal justice jurisdictions, broadly different attempts were made to cut criminal legal aid spending: price-competitive tendering in England and Wales; a contracting model in Scotland; seeking agreement on reductions in costs in Northern Ireland.

Common system priorities – policing, community supervision, legal aid – unfolded in different ways, therefore, in part as a result of different governing strategies across the three jurisdictions.

This is set out in summary in the table below.


England and Wales


Northern Ireland


Elected commissioners across 41 forces with powers to define strategy and commission services. A single national force, overseen by an authority appointed by the Scottish government. A single force, overseen by an independent body composed of political and community figures.

Community supervision

Wholesale price-competitive tendering for the majority of probation services, with a residual public probation service managing high-risk (and thus difficult to cost) cases. The organisation of multi-agency community justice arrangements along local authority boundaries, with a strong national oversight body responsible to Scottish ministers. A public probation service, overseen by a board of independent experts and technocrats appointed by the Justice Minister following open competition.

Legal aid

The failed attempt to introduce price-competitive tendering into criminal legal aid provision, frustrated by opposition from the legal profession. The abortive implementation of a contracting model for criminal legal aid provision following organised opposition from the legal profession. An ongoing dispute between the Justice Minister and legal professionals over attempted savings to legal aid.

Thinking about criminal justice changes in terms of governing strategies and system priorities helps to explain why common policy challenges - police reform say - took different forms in different criminal justice jurisdictions. In England and Wales, the market-building governing strategy made the decentralised Police and Crime Commissioner model an attractive option. In Scotland, on the other hand, a single force proved attractive because it complemented the nation-building ambitions of the Scottish government. In Northern Ireland the political priority to build inclusive, non-sectarian criminal justice arrangements placed a premium on technocratic (in the case of probation) and multi-party (in the case of the police) governance arrangements.

In relation to legal aid cuts, local governing strategies were evident in the specific policies pursued. The influence of the UK government's austerity agenda was also keenly felt. Part of the reason for this relates to the perceived relative ease of finding cuts in this area. Prisons, police forces and other large criminal justice institutions take many years to downsize. Much of the expenditure is tied up in buildings and staff. Cutting the legal aid budget was comparatively simple by comparison, at least in principle. That it did not prove to be so in reality was in good part down to the organised opposition of the legal professions across the three criminal justice jurisdictions.

It also points to an important truth. A number of factors influence criminal justice policy developments over time: promoting rehabilitation for instance, cutting crime, promoting community cohesion, supporting victims, and so on. These considerations, and others, will have an important influence on the criminal justice priority-setting at any given point in time. But the specific policies adopted, the preferred criminal justice structures and arrangements, are down to choices and agendas that are essentially political in nature.

What do you think?

Does this approach shed light on criminal justice developments for you? Are there things you agree with? Things you disagree with?

Click here to share your thoughts