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“Enormous” court backlogs represent “a serious and fundamental challenge to our justice system” – Victims’ Commissioner

The cover of the Victims' Commissioner's 2021/22 Annual Report

Dame Vera Baird publishes her annual report reflecting on her first term as Victims’ Commissioner and the challenges facing victims and the justice system.

Download the Victims’ Commissioners’ 2021/22 Annual Report.

The Victims’ Commissioner, Dame Vera Baird QC, has today (Tuesday 21 June) published her annual report, providing a retrospective of the work and achievements of her office over the past year and during her first term in post.

The 2021/22 publication marks Dame Vera’s third annual report since assuming the role of Victims’ Commissioner in June 2019, and her second to be laid in Parliament. It coincides with the end of Dame Vera Baird’s first three-year term and comes as the government proceeds with an open recruitment process for the role of Victims’ Commissioner. Dame Vera Baird has applied for a second term.

In her annual report, Dame Vera reflects on a turbulent year for the criminal justice system, in which violence against women and girls (VAWG) has continued to generate headlines and an enormous courts backlog has caused misery for thousands of victims who face the prospect of years-long waits for justice.

There are almost 59,000 cases currently outstanding in the Crown Courts. The Ministry of Justice forecasts by November 2024 the backlog will still range between 48-52,000 outstanding cases, which the Public Accounts Committee recently labelled a “meagre ambition”.

“It simply cannot be accepted and normalised that victims are expected to wait years to see justice,” Dame Vera says. “The Ministry of Justice’s forecasts do not instil confidence and work in this area must be turbocharged – or we risk failing thousands of victims.”

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. “[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.”

On Monday, the Criminal Bar Association announced it would commence industrial action, for only the second time in the Criminal Bar’s history – a move that risks severely exacerbating long delays for victims.

The past year saw the appointment of the Deputy Prime Minister, Dominic Raab, as Justice Secretary, replacing Robert Buckland QC. It also saw the long-awaited Victims’ Law consultation in December 2021 and the publication of the draft Victims’ Bill in May 2022.

In February, Dame Vera submitted her 98-page consultation response outlining her key priorities for the Bill. Reflecting on the recently published draft Bill, Dame Vera says: “There are grounds for some optimism” but, as it stands, “the Bill looks insufficient to meet the scale of the challenge.” The draft Victims’ Bill is presently undergoing pre-legislative scrutiny, with Dame Vera providing evidence to the Justice Select Committee on 14 June. “Regrettably, few of [my] recommendations have been taken on in the draft legislation. We must now work to transform the Bill”, she said.

Reflecting on a troubled year for policing, she called for policing chiefs to regain the trust of victims, especially women. “It is up to police leaders to show the nation, and especially women, that the police are worthy of their trust”, she says.

She insists forces embed a zero-tolerance approach to sexism and racism in police ranks and set up a national policing protocol, whereby allegations of domestic abuse or sexual assault by officers are independently investigated by another force. “That is the only way to ensure a good investigation, as all the evidence suggests that the accused will not be able to investigate one of its own forces effectively and independently.”

In her first annual report in 2020, Dame Vera made headlines for suggesting that rape had effectively been decriminalised. Since then, there has been a flurry of government and criminal justice agency activity to improve how rape is investigated and prosecuted, including the end-to-end rape review, published in June 2021. However, Dame Vera suggests little materially has changed: only 5% of rapes that were given an outcome by police in the year ending December 2021 resulted in a charge.

She calls for genuine accountability and leadership within criminal justice agencies to drive much-needed progress. Failing that, she says, “the responsibility falls to government and the legislature to take more serious steps, to change the criminal justice agencies until they do this essential part of their work effectively.”

Following criticisms by Baird over the publication of new guidance by the Crown Prosecution Service and guidelines by the Attorney General’s office on disclosure in rape cases, the Victims’ Commissioner called on government to legislate in the Victims’ Bill to prevent over-intrusive and excessive invasions into victims’ private lives. “The only way to change culture, practice and to protect rape victims is to legislate to control requests of both kinds of material: digital phone records and third-party material.”

Dame Vera 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 Australia.

“We urgently need an entire change of culture in how the justice system sees, hears and helps victims”, she says. “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.”

Over the course of her first term as Victims’ Commissioner, Dame Vera has been a driving force behind many recent advancements in victims’ protections. She uses her report to reflect on some of her achievements in post.

  • In November 2021, Dame Vera secured new privacy safeguards for rape victims in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, protecting against over-intrusive and excessive police requests for personal mobile phone data in rape investigations. Dame Vera also secured government commitments to explore similar legislative options for third-party materials, such as medical records.
  • Dame Vera successfully lobbied for the nationwide rollout of a scheme enabling pre-recorded evidence and cross-examination (Section 28) for victims of rape and sexual offences.
  • Dame Vera successfully campaigned for violence against women and girls to be made a national policing priority (Strategic Policing Requirement – SPR), according it the same status as counter-terrorism policing and knife crime.
  • In conjunction with the Domestic Abuse Commissioner, Dame Vera Baird successfully pushed for an independent review into domestic homicide sentencing. This is presently being conducted by Clare Wade QC.
  • In 2019-20, Dame Vera Baird worked extensively to help shape the Domestic Abuse Act, in which she and campaigners secured crucial amendments, including landmark changes to make non-fatal strangulation a specific criminal offence.

“As we approach the end of my third year in post and the conclusion of my first term as Victims’ Commissioner, I remain unashamedly ambitious for victims,” says Dame Vera. “As this annual report reflects, much has been achieved over these past three years. Should I be re-appointed as Commissioner, I look forward to driving the victims’ agenda forward”.

Download the Victims’ Commissioner’s 2021/22 Annual Report.