English Justice: Old Prisons and Expensive Lawyers

While visiting London for a conference, I took the opportunity to sit down with Prof. Jeremy Horder at the London School of Economics to talk about major criminal law trends in the United Kingdom.

Here are two of the bigger takeaways:


Similar to the U.S., the U.K. is also experiencing an issue with mass incarceration, but for slightly different reasons. Horder said many prisons are deteriorating because they were built 200 to 300 years ago and aren’t up to code, which means there’s a need for new facilities. 

But the U.K. is much smaller so citizens usually oppose new buildings because they don’t want a local prison bringing down the property values, Horder said. That means the best places for building prisons are rural, which makes them harder to get to for prisoners’ families.

The other problem is that imposed sentences are getting longer in the U.K., which means prisons are housing people for longer, Horder said. Meanwhile, more people are getting sentenced and entering prisons with fewer people getting released.


Unlike this side of the Atlantic, the U.K. does not guarantee a fundamental right to counsel. 

The government does provide legal aid for defendants who cannot afford a lawyer, but Horder said politicians have been reducing funding. That means it’s no longer possible to guarantee adequate representation in the courts. 

Private lawyers are expensive and there aren’t enough legal aid lawyers to go around. The result is that many defendants of “adequate” means end up representing themselves, which means judges are taking on dual roles as arbiter and adviser to defense counsel, Horder said. Even prosecutors end up taking on some of the burden to ensure pro se defendants are adequately representing themselves, he said.

International Money Laundering

With London real estate as expensive as it is, it might not come as a surprise that it’s a favorite investment for international money launderers. 

Horder said that government officials from unstable countries are able to steal from their governments because the law does not provide sufficient recourse. However, those officials want the protection of law when hiding that money, so they invest in the U.K. where their rights as buyers are protected.

To help put a stop to such purchases, a U.K. government agency conducted an analysis of an existing law that should have been preventing that issue. Now, assets purchased in a suspiciously large transactions by a “politically exposed person”—a government official—will be frozen while under investigation, Horder said.

That could prove controversial, Horder said. He said he expects challenges under the human rights law, but as long as the U.K. provides provisions for mistakes, appeals, or revisiting cases, it will likely fail.