What impact could the International Black Lives Matter movement have on the Criminal Justice System in England and Wales?


What impact could the International Black Lives Matter movement have on the Criminal Justice System in the England and Wales?

By Elizabeth Lambert
30 September 2020

The death of George Floyd on the 29th of May 2020 was an event that shocked the world. He was a 46-year-old African-American man who was killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota while being arrested by police for allegedly using a counterfeit bill. The public outrage erupted in protests condemning police brutality and racial injustice all over America and eventually all around the world.

Around 4 months ago, former US president Barack Obama said that he hoped the protests would translate into policy change to ensure safer policing and increased trust between communities and law enforcement. This is what he said:

“This is not an either/or. This is a both/and. To bring about real change, we both have to highlight a problem and make people in power uncomfortable. But we also have to translate that into practical solutions and laws.”(1)

We have seen protests throughout the UK from individuals, BLM and other anti-racism groups calling for the end of systemic racism. In the UK we have seen an evolution and explosion of new ideas and demands from all sections of society to embrace racial equality. Many have raised awareness about the existence of systemic racism.

Across our criminal justice system long before the worldwide protests this year, many problems that existed in the system have already been highlighted, and awareness has been raised. The former Prime Minister David Cameron asked David Lammy MP to undertake a review of the criminal justice system. Mr Lammy made 35 specific recommendations in the Lammy Review(2). There are 110 recommendations in the Dame Angiolini review into deaths in police custody. The Home Office review into the Windrush scandal made 30 recommendations. Virtually all of these recommendations have not been implemented yet. Enough awareness has been raised. The problems have been highlighted. These recommendations must now be implemented and evolve into practical solutions and laws that will lead to greater racial equality.

When we consider the question “What is the impact of the international Black Lives Matter movement on the Criminal Justice System here?” The answer may in fact be increasingly positive one. Attention has been drawn to racial injustice (past and present) and we have witnessed a collective call from all sections of society who tell us “enough is enough” and “now is the time to act”. They seek practical solutions to forge genuine change. So many are passionate about directly acting to implement measures to ensure that change occurs and systemic racism is rooted out in all sections of society. The answer is that our actions can have a positive impact in our evolving criminal justice system.

Over twenty years ago, the Macpherson Report concluded that the failures in the Stephen Lawrence investigation were evidence of an ‘institutionally racist’ police force. In recent years the Lammy Review demonstrated that racial disparities within the criminal justice system had not disappeared, and worryingly in some areas had increased. Young black people are now nine times more likely to be in youth custody than their white counterparts. Another example was that black women are more than twice as likely to go to prison for drug offences as white women. Stop and search policy is area that was also highlighted. Statistics published by the Times in June 2020 (3) indicate that black citizens are nine and a half times more likely to be stopped and searched than white citizens, and 49 times more likely to be stopped and searched in stop and search ‘without suspicion’ under s.60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.

On a positive note, these calls for change are resulting in action. For example, British police leaders are drawing up a “plan of action” to address racial inequalities in the criminal justice system following the death of George Floyd in the US. The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) said it aimed to address concerns over stop and search, the use of force and under-representation of black and minority ethnic officers. The report was expected to be completed in July and groups from outside policing, including anti-racism and human rights organisations, are taking part in a consultation. The key here is that a cross-section of organisations are engaged in assisting the police in implementing reform.

Reform of our police force is an issue that many are campaigning for. One method of reform is simply possible following early policing principles. The force itself should look at its very origins to begin that reform. The policing by consent model that was instituted by Sir Robert Peel is in essence a democratic social contract. According to the nine principles of policing doctrine established in 1829, one important principle is that “the police are the public and the public are the police”(4). The police should and must represent the very public they serve. The force should represent all demographics of the population. A more diverse police force would be a symbol for change even before any of the more complex work takes place to dismantle any remnants of institutionalised racism.


Elizabeth Lambert

Elizabeth Lambert’s practice focuses on serious, complex and high profile cases in general crime and fraud. Her experience in general crime includes cases involving serious and organised crime, international cybercrime, firearms offences, drugs conspiracies, and a spectrum of sexual offences.

Inside our criminal justice system we see concerning statistics. Previous reviews have revealed that there is greater disproportionality in the number of Black people in prison in the United Kingdom than in the United States. Changes are occurring at all levels to ensure that equality prevails. Again, our actions will result in reform. In all of our professions, if we all strive for the equal treatment of others, the guidance will become the norm.
All judges and magistrates are continually informed and guided on how to ensure that those who access the system receive fair and just treatment in courts and tribunals across England and Wales. One small example of this guidance in action is contained in the written guidance of the Equal Treatment Bench Book, which is a guide to the judiciary (recently updated in March 2020). Its content is self-explanatory. “The Equal Treatment Bench Book aims to increase awareness and understanding of the different circumstances of people appearing in courts and tribunals.  It helps enable effective communication and suggests steps which should increase participation by all parties.”(5)

For example, the guidance highlights current statistics relating to prevalence of racism, cultural/ethnic differences, antisemitism and islamophobia. In simple terms, the guide provides information about various minority groups and its purpose is to ensure that all people who appear in our courts are treated with sensitivity and fairness, with effective communication taking place to ensure that justice is done in the fairest possible way. The guidance is there and encouraging for any citizen to know this is how justice can and will be achieved.

Finally, one issue that remains to be seen is whether collective pressure by means of lobbying the government is another way to forge policy change. A polite campaign of raising awareness with the support of criminal justice charities is one way of reminding our lawmakers that the public has the knowledge and the power to initiate change. If Marcus Rashford can single handedly lobby the government to change policy on free school meals (6), we all can achieve meaningful and long term reforms by communicating with our elected officials thereby acting upon our desires for change.

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