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Comparative Criminal Law and Enforcement: England and Wales

Governmental And Administrative Context Of Criminal Justice

The Parliament at Westminster is the source of all legislation that covers criminal procedure and criminal law. The system of case law means that the courts are the source of common law. Increasingly European Community regulations and decisions by the European Court of Human Rights are coming to affect criminal procedure in England and Wales.

Although there are similarities between the principles of the criminal justice system in England and Wales and the United States, especially with respect to the adversarial system of justice, there are important differences in the system of government. There is far less separation of power in the British constitution than in the United States. The executive and legislative branches of government are brought closely together through the parliamentary system of government whereby the executive branch of government is formed by the political party with a majority of seats in the House of Commons. The General Election simultaneously determines the political party that will form the government and gives the governing party control of the legislature. Thus the constitution allows for a considerable degree of overlap between the executive and legislative branches. Secondly, the administration of government in England and Wales is more centralized than in the United States. There are no separate states with their own laws, jurisdictional authority, and criminal procedures.

The major government offices are based in London. The key government departments are the Home Office and the Lord Chancellor's Department. The Home Office has overall responsibility for policing, prisons, and the probation service. The head of the Home Office is called the Home Secretary who has political responsibility for crime policy in England and Wales. For example, the Home Secretary sets the key objectives and priorities for the police. The Lord Chancellor's Department has responsibilities relating to the judiciary, and the head of this department, the Lord Chancellor, is both a political appointee and the head of the judiciary in England and Wales.

Most of the public sector employees of the criminal justice system work for the central government; this includes 177,645 employees (officers and civilians) of the police forces, 43,088 employees of the Prison Service, and 7,200 probation officers.

The pressure to adopt a more centralized and systematic approach to crime has been apparent since the 1980s. Government policies have encouraged a greater degree of interagency cooperation within regions. The Criminal Justice Consultative Council was established in 1991 to promote greater awareness of the problems facing the different agencies in the system. Increased cross-regional coordination of law enforcement was the purpose behind the establishment of the National Crime Squad, set up by the Police Act 1997. The National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS) was established in 1992 to coordinate law enforcement efforts with regard to organized crime, illegal immigration, drugs, and counterfeiting.

A comparison of the criminal justice systems in the United Kingdom and the United States would lead to the correct conclusion that the system in England and Wales is more centralized and dependent on central government. However, there are some important counterinfluences that make the role of central government less powerful than first appears to be the case.

First, there are strong regional divisions and responsibilities based primarily on the big metropolitan cities and the old shire counties. For instance, the organization of the police is based on forty-three police forces with jurisdictions that are geographically determined primarily by the old county boundaries of England and Wales such as Hampshire and Essex. An important role is played by local government (cities, boroughs, and counties), especially with regard to crime prevention work in the community, and these governments play a vital role coordinating interagency strategies in response to youth crime.

Second, the independence of the judiciary is a real and effective constraint on the activities of the executive branch of government. The legal professions, represented by the Law Society (representing solicitors) and the Bar Council (representing barristers, or trial lawyers) are powerful protectors of the liberties of the citizen.

Third, the involvement of nonprofessional lay participants such as magistrates, lay visitors to police stations, the Board of Visitors responsible for the oversight of prisons, and Victim Support volunteers ensures that the system is not solely accountable to central government. These nonprofessional groups include well over fifty thousand citizens who each week play a vital role within the system, and bring with them a degree of independence in their approach to issues of crime and justice.

Fourth, there is vociferous and well-organized system of pressure and lobby groups based on the voluntary sector, such as the Magistrates' Association, who help to shape policy developments. These voluntary associations also play a role in cooperative projects and schemes to help offenders and victims (Victim Support). Two key volunteer organizations in the penal system are the Howard League for Penal Reform and NACRO (National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders).

Fifth, interest groups play a part in the process of shaping criminal justice policies. The existence of powerful trade unions such as the Prison Officers Association and the Police Federation ensure that the views of these officers are heard in public debate. In recent years the advance of the private sector has become apparent with privately run prisons operated by commercial companies such as Group 4. An extensive private security industry includes companies such as Securicor and Wells Fargo. It is estimated that 400,000 people are employed in the private sector associated with the criminal justice system in England and Wales.

Finally, the European Court of Human Rights has become increasingly important as the final court of appeal for those citizens who feel that the system has infringed their rights. The international dimension of criminal justice is bound to increase under the influence of greater European harmonization of laws and cooperation between law enforcement agencies; organizations such as Europol (policing agencies) and Eurojust (prosecutors) have already linked officials in different European countries.

Is a European criminal justice system likely to come into being in the near future? Given the great diversity of legal systems, the range of criminal justice agencies in the countries that form the European Union, and the variations in crime problems and public attitudes to law and order, it will be some time before it would be realistic to talk of a single European criminal justice system with harmonized laws and procedures that are the same regardless of where a suspect is arrested in Europe. On matters of crime and justice, parochial attitudes are very difficult to overcome, although the experience of the United States has shown that greater harmonization is not an impossibility. Whether it is desirable or not is a very different question.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawComparative Criminal Law and Enforcement: England and Wales - Law Enforcement: The Police And Prosecution, Prosecutors: Crown Prosecution Service, Criminal Courts: Pre-trial And Trial