Meet the Book Author: Criminal Justice in Austerity – Legal Aid, Prosecution and the Future of Criminal Legal Practice

James Thornton, Nottingham Trent University

In our Meet the Book Author Series, the Journal of Law and Society and the Centre of Law and Society provide first-hand accounts from authors who have recently contributed notable socio-legal books to their respective fields. In this post, we hear from James Thornton, whose new book Criminal Justice in Austerity – Legal Aid, Prosecution and the Future of Criminal Legal Practice was published in November 2023 with Hart / Bloomsbury.

What is this book about? 

The book is about two equally important things:

  1. How austerity (in terms of severe funding cuts to public services) impacts lawyers’ work. 
  2. How to understand that in a way that adequately reflects the complex ethical issues thrown up by an environment of ever-decreasing resources and ever-increasing demands. 

I used the work of publicly funded (by legal aid) criminal defence lawyers and crown prosecution lawyers in the England and Wales jurisdiction as a case study on these issues. Both sides have suffered withering funding cuts and stagnation over many years, however this initially caught my attention during the 2010 – 2015 Coalition Government’s austerity programme. Hence, for me personally, it is the culmination of around a decade’s interest in this area. The COVID-19 pandemic also occurred before and during the writing of the book. I was therefore able to consider how some of the emergency measures in relation to e.g. online access to criminal courts and police stations might impact (positively or negatively) on these issues.

Why did I write it? 

Like many people interested in law (and, for me, criminal law in particular) I was becoming increasingly (and uncomfortably) aware that the admirable principles from theories of adversarial criminal justice provided a rather incomplete picture of ‘what really happens’ in legal practice. Writing the book provided an opportunity for a ‘deep dive’ into that in a specific and enduringly topical area (public resources are never unlimited), which I could then share with others. There were also important issues of principle I wanted to explore and discuss. Much previous work in this area has wrestled with an enduring debate about how to understand or make sense of lawyer practice here (which may in fact appear to be very poor practice) in a way that is both not unduly harsh, but equally, not reverent. For some time, I had been especially interested in Dr Dan Newman’s framing of this issue, but thought this was only the start of what could be done on it. The result is, I hope, that my data can be understood in a much more in-depth way than it otherwise might have been. And, in particular, that it helps to make sense of how people with good intentions can sometimes end up behaving unethically.

How did I go about doing this research?

A key part of the work involved anonymous interviews with 50 criminal lawyers, across different adversarial sides (prosecution and defence), roles (litigator and advocate) and experience (from trainees/pupils and paralegals to firm partners and heads of chambers). I also reviewed both established and more recent literature on the work of practitioners in general and criminal lawyers in particular. This included academic studies, reports of the various independent inspectorates and other bodies, as well as Parliamentary committees and Government reports.

When it came to thinking through how to understand that ‘data’ and (as noted first) how to asses it in a way that was realistic: not unduly harsh, nor reverent, I tried to return to first principles in social science and later developments (both within law and also in areas as niche as healthcare practitioner practice in the pandemic) and developed some theoretical frameworks in a way that had not been done to such an extent before. I leaned heavily on the work of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu – particularly, in terms of understanding the ‘logic of practice’ (via his ‘thinking tools’ of habitus, field, capital, conatus, illusio and symbolic violence). Such a ‘theory heavy’ analysis can sometimes be unwieldly, but (I hope) it lent itself to a fairly natural integration with the data here and ultimately allowed me to have a more accurate take on the issues than I otherwise might have done.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *