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Enormous court backlogs a fundamental challenge to justice

Work with offenders on the Victims’ Commissioner’s annual report.

In her annual report published today, the Victims’ Commissioner, Dame Vera Baird, reflects on what she calls a “turbulent” year for the criminal justice system.

The main challenges she highlights include: violence against women and girls (VAWG), the loss of trust in the police for many women and the scrutiny of rape victims’ personal lives by the routine seizure of their digital devices.

However, the issue she prioritises is the court backlogs.

She criticises a “dangerous shortage” of criminal barristers and part-time judges for the delays and contradicts government assertions that the backlog is a result of the pandemic, saying: “The government frequently asserts that it is the pandemic that caused this backlog. But the backlog was soaring long before March 2020. Delays in the court system were endemic years before we’d even heard of COVID-19.”

Dame Vera points out that yesterday’s announcement by the Criminal Bar Association that it would commence industrial action (for only the second time in the Criminal Bar’s history) is almost certain to exacerbate the already long delays for victims waiting for justice.
The Victims’ Law

Dame Vera also uses her annual report to criticise the government’s current Victims’ Bill (published last month and starting its progress through parliament). This has been a big focus of the Commissioner’s work this year, contributing a 98-page response to the government’s consultation this winter.

Her assessment of the current bill is mixed. On the one hand, Dame Vera says that the Bill provides some grounds for optimism, on the other hand she feels that “the Bill looks insufficient to meet the scale of the challenge.” The Commissioner has already given evidence to the Justice Select Committee and is lobbying hard to make significant changes to the Bill before it is enacted in law.

In particular Dame Vera argues that the draft Bill lacks an accessible complaints system which she says is required to deliver redress to individuals, ensuring they can demand their rights under the Victims’ Code. Otherwise, she feels that the new law will make little difference in practice.

The Commissioner thinks that the new statutory duties in the Bill which require criminal justice agencies to deliver the rights in the Victims’ Code and to collect data on their own institutional performance are blunt instruments, unlikely to facilitate change. She is doubtful that the implementation of more frequent reports by the different criminal justice inspectorates will have the desired effect. Dame Vera’s goal is for the Victims’ Code to be re-written and, in particular, to be more enforceable.

The Commissioner also uses her annual report to set out her defining vision for ingraining victims’ rights deep into the culture of the criminal justice system. She calls for enhanced victim rights, so that victims are accorded a formal ‘participant’ status within the justice system, as is the case in some other countries, such as Australia. 

Dame Vera, who is currently seeking a second term as Victims’ Commissioner, sets out her vision in typically robust words: “We urgently need an entire change of culture in how the justice system sees, hears and helps victims. I believe the Victims’ Law is an opportunity for the government to give victims a distinct legal status within the criminal justice system, separate from that of the wider public. In doing so, there is recognition that they have suffered a wrong. Importantly, their ‘rights’ are elevated from favours, to be done where possible – and if resources allow – to an inherent requirement and core function of the system.”

Work with offenders will keep you informed of the progress of the Victims’ Bill and report on just how many significant changes are – or are not – made on its passage to becoming law.


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