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The context of criminal justice

In this article, Layla Skinns discusses the importance of recognising the situated nature of criminal justice.
A prison cell
© The University of Sheffield
In the previous section, you learned about the growing emphasis on the administration of justice, in particular on auditing and cost-effectiveness. This raises the question: why is this the case?
The shifting emphasis in the criminal justice process reflects wider changes in society. This highlights the importance of recognising the situated nature of criminal justice.
All criminal justice institutions, whether the police, the crown prosecution service, the courts, sentencers or prisons are intimately connected to the wider social world.
For example, an eminent policing scholar describes the police as a “social litmus paper” for the unfolding dynamics of society (Reiner, 1992: 762). What he means by this is that the police and citizens jointly play a role in creating and maintaining social order. Social changes are reflected in police policies and practices and changes to police and changes are in turn reflected in the behaviour of the public. The same can also be said of other criminal justice institutions.

Key changes in the post-war period and their impact on criminal justice institutions

Social scientists have noted some important changes in the post-Second World War period, particularly since the 1970s.
David Garland, for example, notes that there have been a distinctive pattern of social, economic and cultural changes across the developed world. These have contributed to new sets of risks, insecurities and crime control problems, all of which have played an important role in shaping criminal justice responses to crime (Garland, 2001: viii).
Some of these changes include:
  • A decrease in deference

    That is, a polite and respectful attitude – towards those in positions of authority, including the police and other criminal justice institutions (Reiner, 1992; Loader and Mulcahy, 2006: 18). This has been shown to affect how these institutions are viewed and whether they are trusted and valued as public institutions.
  • The growth of mass consumerism

    The ‘I shop, therefore I am’ mentality (Winlow et al., 2008: 48-9), which has also helped to turn citizens into ‘consumers’ of criminal justice services (much like they would buy services from a shop), rather than users or recipients of these services (Reiner, 2010: 248).
  • Technological developments

    The internet, electronic communication, the mass media, as well as social media have impacted on all aspects of the criminal justice process (Aas, 2013: 175-6). They impact on the kind of crimes the criminal justice system responds to (e.g. rising cybercrime) and how these crimes are addressed (e.g. video-enabled justice linking police stations to courts, body-worn cameras used by the police, closed circuit television, automatic number plate recognition).
  • Globalisation and transnational crime

    The growth of globalisation and the subsequent increase in transnational forms of crime, such as drug trafficking and organised crime, have necessitated transnational criminal justice responses, such as the European Arrest Warrant or Europol (Bowling and Sheptycki, 2012: 25).
  • The growth of neoliberalism

    Neoliberalism, in simple terms, refers to “a free market ideology based on individual liberty and limited government” (Stedman-Jones 2012: 2). It is seen as a key reason for the global economic crisis of 2008, which was used to justify the cutting of budgets across the public sector, including of criminal justice institutions (Humpage, 2015: 30-31). These cuts are often referred to as austerity measures.

Example – Neoliberalism, austerity and the criminal defence profession

As a result of austerity measures, criminal defence solicitors have faced cuts to the criminal legal aid budget. This is public money generated through tax revenue which is used to pay for a criminal defence solicitor, where a defendant cannot afford to pay for one themselves.
To determine who is eligible to have a criminal defence solicitor funded by criminal legal aid, the Legal Aid Agency must determine their means to pay for such assistance themselves, known as means-testing (Welsh, 2017).
This means-testing was re-introduced from 2006, in order to contain the cost of criminal legal aid, which was seen as too high by government. For offences for which someone could go to prison, a defendants’ disposable income must be below £22,325 or £37,500 (Gibbs, 2016), depending on how serious the accusations are and thus whether their case is heard in a Magistrates’ or Crown Court.
This re-introduction of means-testing has had serious consequences for defendants with regards to their access to justice. There have been growing numbers of unrepresented defendants not just at Magistrates’ courts (which hears less serious cases), but also in Crown Court cases (Gibbs, 2016).
This raises questions about whether legal provisions are being complied with (such as the Article 6 right to a fair trial provision in the European Convention on Human Rights). Apart from slowing the criminal justice process down, growing numbers of unrepresented defendants also contribute to “daily miscarriages of justice” (Gibbs, 2016: 28).


Aas, K. (2013) Globalization and crime. London: Sage.
Bowling, B. and Sheptycki, J. (2012) Global policing. London: Sage.
Garland, D. (2001) The Culture of Control. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Gibbs, P. (2016) Justice Denied? The experience of unrepresented defendants in the criminal courts. London: Transform Justice. Available online
Hall, S. and Winlow, S. (2008) Criminal Identities and Consumer Culture: Crime, Exclusion and the New Culture of Narcissism. Cullompton: Willan.
Humpage, L. (2015). Policy change, public attitudes and social citizenship. Bristol: Policy Press.
Loader, I. and. Mulcahy, A. (2006). Policing and the condition of England: Memory, politics and culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Reiner, R. (2010) The Politics of the Police. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Reiner, R. (1992) Policing a postmodern society, Modern Law Review, 55(6), 761-781.
Stedman Jones, D. (2012). Masters of the Universe: Hayek, Friedman, and the birth of neoliberal politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Welsh, Lucy (2017) The effects of changes to legal aid on lawyers’ professional identity and behaviour in summary criminal cases: a case study. Journal of Law and Society, 44 (4), 559-585.
© The University of Sheffield
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Crime, Justice and Society

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