We previously outlined the current provisions for rights for victims of crime in England and Wales. In particular, we reviewed the recent amendments to the Victims’ Code and the ways that this may impact consultations for a new “Victims’ Law”. We also noted the steps currently under consideration to offer greater priority to the experiences of victims in the criminal justice system.

In this note we look in more detail at why we need a “Victim’s Law” and how the government is assessing the need to underpin victims’ rights in legislation.

Data from the Crime Survey for England and Wales 2018 to 2019 revealed positive feedback from victims reflecting on their first interactions with the police: 73% of victims were satisfied with their initial contact with police. However, the statistics do not paint the same rosy picture where victims were asked to assess their ongoing experience: 33% grew dissatisfied with the way the police handled their case, feeling that the police took too little action, and failed to communicate sufficiently about the case.

Further statistics suggest that the experience of the victim in the lead-up to trial, in the courtroom itself and following trial, is often even worse. In a Victims’ Commissioner’s survey of victims conducted in April 2020, just 18% of respondents felt that victims are given enough support through the court process.

Responses from victims of sexual assault display an even more disturbing lack of faith in the criminal justice system. In the Victims’ Commissioner’s survey of rape complainants conducted in the summer of 2020, overall, just 14% of respondents agreed that “survivors of rape and sexual offences can get justice by reporting an incident to the police”. 75% of respondents actively disagreed.

The above statistics illustrate why it is of growing concern that the public’s faith in the efficacy and legitimacy of the criminal justice system, in particular its treatment of victims, is at a nadir.

The need for change was recently articulated by the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales, Dame Vera Baird QC:

“We know victim confidence in our criminal justice system is in sharp decline. More and more victims are withdrawing their support for prosecutions […] Superficial changes are not enough if we are to reverse this downward trend. To regain the trust of victims, we urgently need a change of culture in how the justice system treats them.”[1]

It would seem to follow from the above statistics, that the need for an evaluation of the rights afforded to victims under the law in England and Wales is urgent, and some would argue, long overdue. In this perfect storm, not only is public confidence depressed, but also the Government currently faces the unique challenge of resuscitating a criminal justice system, already crippled by a systematic shortage of resources [2]; now further impaired by the unprecedented impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

As Dame Vera Baird QC observed,

“Covid has forced all of us to step back and re-think how we do things. We know that in recent years, victims’ confidence in the justice system has fallen. The victims’ voice is not always being heard and too often they are treated as by-standers, with what few entitlements they have not being complied with. As lockdown starts to lift and the public adjusts to the ‘new normal’ of living with social distancing, the government faces the huge challenge of getting the criminal justice system fully functioning once more … [and] … whilst huge logistical problems face us, there are opportunities to do things differently and better…”.

Despite the enormity of the logistical challenges and budgetary constraints that can so often stand in the way of change, the pandemic has prompted advancements and in certain instances proved to be a catalyst for improvements and boosted the speed with which they have been adopted by the police and the courts across the country.

For example, one post-Covid change has been to maximise the potential use of remote evidence, including vulnerable victims giving evidence through pre-recorded cross-examination. Special measures such as these aim to reduce the ordeal of the victim giving evidence and reduce the waiting time to do so. The hope is that this development may positively impact rates of conviction in targeted areas, such as victims of violent and sexual crimes.

A review led by the justice secretary, Robert Buckland, and the home secretary, Priti Patel, includes plans to enable rape victims to provide their evidence on video before the trial, in an attempt to improve conviction rates [3]. If accepted, this proposal will allow rape victims to pre-record their evidence, including cross-examination, sparing them the trauma of appearing in person in a courtroom full of people. The review also includes plans to encourage judges to clear the public from the courtroom more often, again, to make the courtroom experience less daunting for vulnerable victims. Additionally, the review includes plans to guarantee that police return mobile phones to victims within 24 hours.

Dame Vera Baird QC has said that the Victims’ Law must give victims enforceable rights in the justice system, with criminal justice agencies being held to account when they don’t deliver. The Victim’s Commissioner has also voiced her intention to ensure that vulnerable victims have the support of advisors throughout their criminal justice journey.

B P Collins’ Victims’ Rights Team has extensive experience corresponding with the police Witness Care Unit, and courts to ensure that our clients’ rights are observed. Whether you are processing the trauma of being a victim of crime and do not have the capacity to follow up with the progress of your case, or you are simply frustrated with the time-consuming challenges of dealing with the bureaucracy of the criminal justice system, our team is here to help and be of assistance. Please email us at enquiries@bpcollins.co.uk or call 01753 89995.

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Jonothan Moss
Principal Lawyer

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