The Victims’ Commissioner, Dame Vera Baird QC (VC) and the CEO of HM Courts and Tribunal Service, Susan Acland Hood (CEO), had their first routine meeting since the VC’s appointment in June.
The VC welcomed the improvements in court facilities for victims and witnesses in some court buildings and was keen to see more. She offered to visit court buildings where upgrades were taking place so that she could see the improvements first hand and get feedback from staff and users.
The CEO welcomed this and HMCTS would liaise with the OVC.
The VC expressed concern about whether victims and witnesses entitled to special measures in the courts were being properly identified in advance of trials. This concern had been borne out by her experience when she was PCC in Northumbria.
She was also concerned about the extent to which remote evidence centres were being offered to vulnerable and intimidated victims and the extent to which they were being used.
The VC hoped that the rollout of the common platform, new models for providing court support and staff training might address these issues.
The CEO referred to a facilities audit undertaken across the HMCTS estate in 2017. There had been some funding to provide improvements for victims and children’s rooms. She was very aware that often, facilities in the family courts for vulnerable people fell short of those in the criminal courts, because of their different history and changing use; and was keen to see this addressed. In many county courts there were no special facilities at all.
The latest facilities audit was about to commence. HMCTS planned to use its findings to feed into its bids for the Comprehensive Spending Review.
In December HMCTS had published its protocol for supporting victims and witnesses when using remote links. The CEO offered to share this with the VC. HMCTS would also provide the VC with up to date information on the uptake and use of remote centres.
The VC found that in the North East, the uptake had been slow and felt that more needed to be done to promote the use of remote links. She felt that judges were just not being asked to approve requests for remote evidence in cases where it was appropriate.
The CEO was of the view the rollout of the common platform would help HMCTS to track the use of special measures and remote evidence and provide a much fuller picture.
The VC and CEO acknowledged some of the difficulties in collating accurate data, not least because police forces have different IT systems, and the collation of certain pieces of information depended on who happened to be in the court room at the time.
As one example, HMCTS had done a lot of work to ensure that it could accurately record domestic violence markers on its systems, although this had not been without its challenges.
The VC welcomed this work and asked if more could be done to ensure the common platform was able to record cases where specials measures had applied and where evidence had been given remotely. The CEO agreed to write to the VC to provide further advice.
The CEO observed it was rare requests for special measures were turned down; the issue was making sure that those who needed them were brought to the attention of the court authorities.
The CEO said the development of the common platform was going well, albeit slower than hoped. It was on track for rollout during the next calendar year. Some of the legacy systems were fragile and transitioning from one to the other had to be handled with care.
Section 28 pre-recorded cross examination
The rollout of s.28 pre-recorded cross examination was going well and it is now up and running in 9 early adopter courts. The feedback was positive. It had recently been extended to include intimidated witnesses as well as vulnerable.
The s.28 project Board would take a decision on national rollout by the end of the year.
HMCTS has a new complaints system in place which allows managers to use recorded complaints to review systems and processes and identify where there were shortcomings. The data being captured was allowing managers to use complaints to learn.
The VC was concerned that victims and defendants were being given inadequate information about the sentences handed down by the courts and what they meant in practice. She was keen to advocate victims and defendants in the Crown Courts automatically being given a transcript of the judge’s sentencing remarks. She acknowledged some of the practical difficulties to overcome but the clarity this might provide would assist everyone.
HMCTS and the OVC would remain in regular contact going forward.
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