Our police and justice regimes fail to deliver equality of opportunity, and some people are proposing to make things worse

Last week there was controversy when the College of Policing recommended that police recruitment should be restricted to graduates. The rationale for this – that police officers need to have a lot of policing-specific knowledge – was undermined by the College’s suggestion that entrants could take a short conversion course after graduating in another subject, rather than a 3-year policing degree.  Unless officers are investigating stolen masterpieces (which few do) it is hard to see why having a qualification in art history would be helpful. But imposing a graduates-only rule would mean that police forces found it harder to recruit from low-income backgrounds: those from advantaged areas are 2.4 times more likely to apply to university than those from disadvantaged areas.

But the police are far from the most unrepresentative part of the law-and-order system. Seventy per cent of High Court judges went to private schools, compared to 7 per cent of the population.

If law and order is to operate effectively, it is vital that the police and judiciary have an understanding of the people they serve (and vice-versa). Otherwise, we risk the violent animosities between police and low-income communities all too often seen in the USA (one of the few developed countries with worse income inequality than the UK). But people from privileged backgrounds cannot fully comprehend the practical and psychological experience of financial insecurity.

This is vitally important, because people with modest incomes are disproportionately likely to be the victims of crime, and to find themselves discriminated against if they are the accused: recent figures from Scotland showed that children from deprived backgrounds were twice as likely to face police action than better-off children who commit the same crime.

It is also important because in many ways the legal system exacerbates inequality. Being able to afford the ‘right’ lawyer increases your chance of winning a case. Planned cuts to legal aid (opposed by the Law Society) and making employees pay for employment tribunals (opposed by the TUC) have further unbalanced the scales of justice. The effects on people against whom the odds are stacked can be disastrous:  it can destroy your career, your finances, your relationships and your mental health.

In his speech to the Conservative party conference last month, the Prime Minister talked of his “belief in equality of opportunity”. If Mr Cameron wants to achieve equal opportunities, he (and his Home Secretary and Justice Secretary) must recognise that the UK’s police and justice regimes are currently preventing equality of opportunity. While the UK remains one of the developed world’s most economically-unequal nations, law and order will always favour the rich over the poor. But the government should at least commit to moving towards justice:  to set goals that not only the police but also the judiciary more closely resemble those whom they serve, and that in court cases and tribunals, outcomes depend less on incomes. 

Duncan Exley, Director