Nearly a quarter of a million victims and witnesses of crime in London are waiting to have their cases heard in court, according to the city’s mayor.
Across the rest of England and Wales, the COVID-19 crisis has caused further delays to tens of thousands of other court cases.
Accountability and oversight
Introduced in 2004 and revised again last month, the code seeks to ensure that victims have a positive experience of the criminal justice system. It requires bodies like the police to communicate with victims about the progress of their cases and provide information about why certain decisions are taken.
We argue that, in a criminal justice system that is struggling with systemic problems, victims of crime in the UK still have a low status, even with the existence of the victims’ code. The victims’ commissioner’s responsibility is to seek to provide an independent voice on behalf of victims, as well as overseeing how criminal justice agencies interact with them.
Among other measures, it calls for reforms to support the commissioner in holding criminal justice agencies accountable for their conduct with victims. Our suggestions would enable the commissioner to report regularly and directly to parliament, raising the status of victims and awareness of issues affecting them.
The commissioner, for example, could have much greater oversight of complaints by victims against criminal justice agencies, including taking legal action to ensure they follow the victims’ code.
In an article for the Telegraph, the current victims’ commissioner, Vera Baird QC, has recently written that more than half of victims in 2019 claimed that police had failed to keep them “informed on progress on their case”.
Our findings also highlighted that 90% of victims weren’t referred to support services, half weren’t informed of the progress of their case and 85% did not recall being asked for a victim’s statement, all obligations required by the code.
Giving the commissioner powers to pursue legal action to enforce the code could open up a new route to compensation. However, victims of crime should be able to seek access to justice through effective prosecution of the offence by the state, not only financial compensation, which is already available through the courts and the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority.
Severe Criminal Court Backlog
Even before the pandemic, a significant backlog of criminal cases had developed in the courts. James Mulholland QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association, has recently described the system as being “on its knees”.
Delays have put victims at risk and have highlighted the risks posed by the extended process of getting to trial. Lengthy gaps between the launch of a prosecution and the trial of the defendant may lead to victims and witnesses disengaging with the justice process, in some cases withdrawing cooperation with the prosecution, a frequent concern in domestic abuse prosecutions. In cases where the relationship between the victim and the defendant is close, such as domestic abuse or gang-related cases, delay can threaten the victim’s safety and wellbeing.
Cuts to the justice system
The impact of public sector funding cuts on the justice system as a whole has been vast. In 2019-20, Ministry of Justice spending on prisons, probation and the courts was 25% lower than in 2010-11. The police have also experienced cuts to their workforce, with an overall drop of 21,732 officers between March 2010 and March 2018.
The stretch on resources within criminal justice agencies has an impact on the quality of decision-making in relation to prosecutions and communication with victims and witnesses. Crucially, the cuts have the potential to exclude victims from the system that is seeking to secure justice on their behalf.
The case-based nature of prosecutions means that a victim’s engagement with agencies is by its nature partial and limited. Victims’ participation in the criminal justice system often depends on how much support and encouragement they are given to interact with agencies they contact during the prosecution process. Resourcing public agencies to keep victims informed about the progress of their case, as required by the code, is key to the effectiveness of these interactions.
The commissioner’s powers are essential for highlighting issues in justice agencies that pose significant problems for giving victims access to justice in England and Wales.
The shift to recognising the status and needs of victims has been an important development in recent years. While concerns about risks in the system often talk of securing justice for victims, giving the victims’ commissioner stronger powers and adequately funding the criminal justice system are the best ways of seeing that happen.
Pamela Cox receives funding from the ESRC for the 'Victims' Access to Justice' project and has received funding from the Office of the Victims Commissioner for her work reviewing the constitutional powers of that office. She is affiliated with the Labour Party.
Ruth Lamont receives funding from ESRC for 'Victims' Access to Justice Through the English Criminal Courts' and from the Office of the Victims' Commissioner for a report on the constitutional powers of the Commissioner.