"This is a fascinating and challenging role, which I am privileged to have. Much has been done and much remains to be achieved."
The Victims’ Commissioner has today (Wednesday 21 July 2021) published her annual report, providing a retrospective of the work and achievements of her office across a turbulent and momentous year for victims.
In her second annual report since assuming the role in June 2019, and her first to be laid in Parliament, Dame Vera reflects on a year that has been dominated by the criminal justice system’s pandemic response and seen tackling violence against women and girls (VAWG) shoot up the political agenda.
Reflecting on the prominence of VAWG issues over the past year, Dame Vera writes: “Following the awful killing of Sarah Everard, the horrific murders of Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, and the collective outpourings from young women and girls on the Everyone’s Invited website, violence against women and girls has understandably been high on the agenda. As such, my report reflects a lot of the incredibly important – and pressing – work that is taking place in this area.”
Alongside developments in tackling VAWG, Dame Vera is keen to use her annual report to highlight the broader and varied issues impacting victims, including endemic delays in the courts system (“justice delayed is justice denied”), and the actions she feels are required to urgently tackle the “significant increase in persistent and serious anti-social behaviour” following successive lockdowns.
The June publication of the end-to-end rape review was a pivotal moment in the year. Dame Vera’s first annual report made headlines for warning that rape has been effectively decriminalised as a result of a collapse in prosecutions.
Addressing these comments 12 months on, Dame Vera says: “Last year, I warned that we were witnessing the effective decriminalisation of rape. Nothing in the past year has swayed me from that perspective. The uncomfortable truth is that if you are raped in Britain today, your chances of seeing justice are slim.”
Commenting further on the rape review, published in June, she says there was “a clear desire from government and ministers to fix the justice system for rape survivors,” and the “powerful apology” from ministers was “encouraging” and the measures announced were “a start”.
But she adds: “the review was carried out by the very government departments and agencies responsible for the poor state of rape in the first place” and, as a result, it was “riddled with compromise solutions”. “Consequently,” she writes, “the proposals are underwhelming, both in their scope and resourcing, and represent some real missed opportunities to bring speedy and effective change.”
There are several further significant milestones for victims expected in the coming months, which Dame Vera focuses on in her report. This includes the long-awaited consultation on the Victims Bill, expected in the autumn, and the second reading of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, due in September, of which Dame Vera says some clauses on mobile phone data downloads “will only serve to damage victim privacy” of rape complainants. Ministers have also promised a review into domestic homicide sentencing.
The report reflects on key events for victims over the past year, such as launch of a new, revised Victims’ Code, and the passing of the Domestic Abuse Act into law. In particular, the Victims’ Commissioner and others successfully campaigned for an amendment to make non-fatal strangulation a specific offence.
Looking to the future and the promised Victims Law consultation in the Autumn, Dame Vera says the time has come to re-conceptualise the status of victims within the criminal justice system. Citing research from her office which found that victims continue to feel marginalised and peripheral to the criminal trial process, she says the introduction of a Victims Law is an opportunity to address this by redefining the status of victims as “active participants”, with rights that flow from this status.
“It has without doubt been an eventful year for victims and witnesses,” she writes. “This is a fascinating role, which I am privileged to have. Much has been done and much remains to be achieved and, as we recover from the pandemic, my ambition for victims is greater than ever.”