The Victims’ Commissioner (VC) Baroness Newlove met Susan Acland Hood, CEO of HM Courts and Tribunal Service (CEO) on 5 February for a routine meeting. These meetings are an opportunity for the VC and CEO to discuss how victims and witnesses might be better supported by HMCTS.

Issues discussed

Mental Health Tribunals

When they met in September, the VC raised her recent report on entitlements for victims of mentally disordered offenders, in which she had recommended that the Government should give victims the same rights as victims in Scotland, namely the right to attend a mental Health Review Tribunal and make representations to the panel directly.

In a written response following the meeting (see attached) the CEO stated that HMCTS is awaiting Sir Simon Wessley’s report on modernising the Mental Health Act. This report was published in December 2018 and he recommended that the recommendations in the VC report be implemented jointly through Ministry of Justice and Department of Health. The VC is due to meet with ministers in DofH and MoJ to ask how they plan to take this work forward.

The VC and CEO discussed taking this work forward. The CEO pointed out that victims already had the right to make representations to the Tribunal, albeit in practice this right is restricted to discharge conditions. The VC and CEO also discussed whether a Victim Personal Statement might be submitted, as well as the logistical issues if victims opted to attend a hearing in person to make their recommendations.

MoJ are looking at all of these issues as part of the Victims Strategy. The VC is keen to be kept updated.

Witness Care Units

The VC has been approached by a journalist who has obtained figures which suggest that over the past 8 years the number of witnesses supported by court based Witness Services has reduced by 53%. (2009/10; 320,000 witnesses were supported; 2017/18 it had reduced to 148,592).

The journalist suggested that the drop cannot be explained solely by the reduction in trials, as data shows these have reduced by 24% in the magistrates and 12% in the Crown Court. The CEO agreed that HMCTS would look into this and get back to the VC.

After the meeting, HMCTS responded:

There are many factors that may influence victim and witness number and we cannot therefore be certain why numbers of witnesses being supported are declining but this is likely to be linked to falling numbers of witnesses attending court. The Cross-Government Victims Strategy describes the changing nature of crime and sets out our cross cutting commitments to victims of crime, including that victims are provided with high quality information and support, and a number of measures to improve the court experience. The Strategy includes a commitment to improve the quality of the information provided to victims and witnesses on the role of the Court Based Witness Service to encourage more referrals, and increase the participation in pre-trial visits.

We work closely with the Court Based Witness Service to understand trends and fluctuations in demand and continue to ensure that Witness Service support is available to those that need it across all criminal courts in England and Wales.

The VC will be writing to the CEO to ask if the fall in numbers could be further investigated.

IT failures

It was reported in the media that thousands of cases had been disrupted or delayed across England and Wales after the courts service’s main computer network repeatedly crashed.

Reports were that staff were unable to send emails, wireless connections went down, jurors could not be enrolled and barristers could not register for attendance payments. It was suggested that courts had been left unsure of when some defendants were due to appear and some court files could not be retrieved, leading to prosecutions being adjourned.

The CEO reported that the scale of the IT failures had been regrettable. They were MoJ wide and outside HMCTS’s control, though HMCTS had worked closely with MoJ on resolutions. There were good contingency arrangements in place to make sure hearings were able to go ahead; and that warrants were correctly issued; and HMCTS staff had worked extremely hard and well. The contingency planning meant that the vast majority of listed hearings were able to take place as planned and the courts were able to issue all warrants.

Overall, just 39 hearings were lost, 10 in the Crown Court, 8 in the Family Court, 21 in the Magistrates Court and none in the Tribunal Service.

There had been an impact on the ability of staff to do administrative back-office work; and a plan was in place to recover from this. Appropriate measures had been put in place with MoJ to prevent a re-occurrence in the future, and also to minimise the impact of any IT failure.

Local feedback

The VC raised some localised problems that had been fed back to her by victims. It was agreed that she would follow up the discussion by setting out her concerns to the CEO in writing.

Video-links (s.28) rollout

The VC asked for an update on the rollout of video-links for pre-recorded cross-examination for vulnerable witnesses across the court estate. The CEO advised that the technical upgrades in respect of bandwidth were now in place. Quality of recordings was being further tested. The formal decision for using a secure laptop-based service at Liverpool, Leeds and Kingston with roll out to the first wave courts was expected to be put to the Senior Presiding Judge and Project Board later this month. It was important that key stakeholders, such as the judiciary, had confidence that the IT would work before taking a decision to go ahead.

The VC welcomed this news and is keen to be updated on progress.

Communications

The VC and CEO agreed that an agreed note of the meeting should be published on the VC website.

Find more Meeting notes.