This government has an overstocked wardrobe mentality about legislation: everything is in the wardrobe, open the door and it all falls out at once and in no particular order. The Coroners and Justice Bill is no exception. It is a hotch potch of measures, some of which should have received serious discussion and consultation with the public before being rammed through Parliament. While public attention focuses on the provisions for prosecuting those who "encourage" or assist suicide, other potentially serious changes are sneakily introduced.
For example, buried in the Bill is the provision for government agencies to share the personal details of individual citizens with "designated" third parties, with no parliamentary control over how this power is to be used. Victims fleeing domestic violence, young persons trying to escape from being forced into marriage and witnesses to criminal offences who wish to be able to disappear after giving evidence will no longer feel safe. It needs only one corrupt person with access to a database for someone's address to be discovered. The government should not be legislating on the basis that all can be trusted in the best of all possible worlds. Dominic Grieve, the Shadow Justice Secretary, has said there should be stand-alone legislation for this one, but it is not a matter which is likely to be well understood by the public.
Another potentially disastrous change is the establishment of a Sentencing Council. The Sentencing Guidelines Council, set up at no doubt considerable expense after the Criminal Justice Act 2003, is to be abolished, as is the Sentencing Advisory Board, which concentrates on Court of Appeal decisions. Centuries of common law is to be jettisoned. Now sentences for criminal cases are to be fixed with ever increasing rigidity as the Council dictates what factors can be deemed aggravating or mitigating for judges and magistrates dealing with criminal sentences. The Council, a group of people to be chosen by the Lord Chancellor, is to set guidelines for every criminal offence, giving a range of sentencing. There is to be consultation about the Guidelines with the Lord Chancellor and anyone he nominates, but significantly not with Parliament or any parliamentary committee. Any court must take the Guidelines into account and any deviation will be closely monitored. A District Judge who wishes to be promoted to the Crown Court may well feel too scared to do what is right in an individual case. Crown Court judges anxious to be promoted to the Court of Appeal are going to think carefully before stepping outside the parameters of what is in a guideline, even where it is obvious that an individual case calls for an individual approach.