IT’S the end of the week at Swindon Crown Court. A queue of drug dealers – most of them addicts caught selling crack and heroin to undercover police – are in and out the dock. Families crowd into the public waiting area, the air thick with sweat and fear. It’s not long before warring youths play out petty disputes with their fists on the steps of the court.

Inside the courtrooms the atmosphere is calmer. Lawyers flag concerns about pre-sentence reports, compiled by the probation service and which tell the judge about the person he’s about to jail, which have not been ordered by the magistrates – slowing proceedings further. Another solicitor warns the judge about the legal aid fee structure crippling his firm. The judge is sympathetic but, perhaps sagely, refuses to engage.

All this feels a world away from Old Town café The Core, where I meet Robert Buckland for an early morning coffee.

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A barrister by profession, the South Swindon MP has been the Justice Secretary since July. He’s the man responsible for courts, prisons and legal aid.

In the last six months he’s had to contend with prison riots and a number of high-profile Supreme Court battles over Brexit and prorogation.

The London Bridge terror attack and the conviction of serial rapist Joseph McCann, who had been freed from jail from error, resulted in difficult questions being asked of the parole board, which releases prisoners, and the probation service that monitors them.

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Robert Buckland QC as Lord Chancellor Picture: PA

So why, I ask over a flat white, isn’t justice is crisis?

He gives a politician’s answer: “I think the word crisis is one that is legitimate to use in particular places and parts of the system. But to automatically use two words together generally I think is wholly wrong.

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“I think it underplays vastly the huge amount of things that go right in the system and the huge amount of success probation officers have with regards to reoffending.”

He admits there have been problems in the probation service. In 2014/15 the government privatised the system. The National Probation Service would be responsible for the most serious offenders while community rehabilitation companies – private firms – would manage lesser criminals.

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Usman Khan Picture: PA

A result was a haemorrhaging of experienced probation officers and a huge amount more stress for those in the NPS, whose caseload now predominantly consisted of murderers, rapists, drug dealers and thugs. From the press bench at Swindon crown and magistrates’ courts we saw the number of probation officers in court dwindle to two, while stories abounded of people unable to do unpaid work sessions because Community Rehabilitation Companies couldn’t get them there.

Now, after years of the CRCs failing to meet their targets, responsibility for all offenders is being handed back to an expanded NPS divided into a dozen regions with each area working closely with charities or companies to rehabilitate offenders. The system is likely to be fully in place from 2021.

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It’s important to get right, because Mr Buckland wants a renewed focus on community orders. While longer sentences for serious sexual and violent offenders have stolen headlines, the Welshman says he wants to make the orders “more robust”.

“Why can’t we increase the limit on unpaid work?” he asks, suggesting curfews could be extended too.

It sounds as though he just wants to be more harsh on everyone – to “cut the head off the snake” of crime as prime minister Boris Johnson said last week.

“No – smarter,” he replies. “I don’t see community work as purely punitive. I see it as rehabilitative as well.”

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Joseph McCann Picture: PA

Mr Buckland wants more mental health treatment orders, making it a requirement of his sentence that a criminal gets support. And he gives a “clear steer” he wants more pre-sentence reports, a comment that later raises a weary eyebrow from one snowed-under probation officer.

The challenge is staff and funding. Swindon regularly relies on probation officers travelling from Gloucester and Salisbury. He says he is recruiting probation officers but it is going to take time.

“Justice funding and the system has gone into a bit of a dip and ever so slowly we’re climbing out,” he says, pointing to a five per cent increase in his department’s budget.

Quizzed on complaints from the legal sector about widespread legal aid cuts, Mr Buckland defended changes in 2012 that further slashed the legal aid budget for civil areas of the law, leaving as many as four-fifths of family court complainants and respondents unrepresented by one estimate. This resulted in what solicitors’ body the Law Society branded “advice deserts” in parts of the country as firms went out of business.

Mr Buckland said ministers failed to make the intellectual case for changing legal aid rules a decade ago.

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Tributes left to London Bridge attack victim Jack Merritt Picture: PA

He said: “We didn’t say this should be where the state is affecting your livelihood and your liberty. Private disputes you need to sort out yourself.”

Mr Buckland claimed he understood the challenges solicitors and barristers faced.

He said: “I’ve been there. I know what it’s like to be a legal aid practitioner.

“Can I say it’s ever been great? No, I can’t. Every year I was practising in the noughties there was always some disaster round the corner.

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A legal aid protest outside the High Court in 2014 Picture: PA

“In me you’ve probably got the only modern Lord Chancellor with direct legal aid experience and that’s got to count for something.”

How does he see success?

“I want to be able to look back and say the system was in a better place when I left it than when I began,” he replied.

“I think we know what that looks like: safe prisons; more investment; a court system that is working with minimum delay; and a judiciary but also victims of crime and court users feeling more listened to.”