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Victim advocates play “invaluable” role in justice system – new research

Image of the cover of the Victims' Commissioner's report, Going above and beyond.

A new report from the Victims' Commissioner spotlights the crucial role victim advocates play in supporting victims through the criminal justice process.

  • “Invaluable” advocates keep victims engaged in the criminal justice system for longer amid long waits for justice, says Victims’ Commissioner.
  • Advocates praised in extensive new first-hand testimony, with studies showing victims with advocacy support 49% less likely to withdraw from the criminal justice process.
  • Report highlights challenges facing the sector, including high caseloads exacerbated by Crown Court backlog.  

The report, Going above and beyond: Mapping the provision and impact of Victim Advocacy in the Criminal Justice System finds advocates help victims stay informed, engaged, and protected as they navigate the criminal justice system. This comes as growing numbers of victims withdraw amid record-high backlogs in the Crown Court and long waits for justice.

Mapping the current provision of victim advocacy in England and Wales, the report features powerful first-hand victim testimony from those who received advocacy support and reflections from advocates working in the criminal justice system. The Victims’ Commissioner proposes 16 recommendations for commissioners and government to take forward.

In the research, victims highlighted the importance of advocacy in several areas:

  • Improved engagement with the criminal justice system: advocates help victims understand their rights and options, and ensure they are kept informed throughout the process.
  • Emotional and practical support: advocates provide a safe space for victims to discuss their experiences and offer practical assistance with tasks, such as completing forms or applying for compensation.
  • Holding agencies accountable: advocates can challenge decisions made by the police, CPS and other agencies, and ensure victims are treated fairly and in a timely manner.
  • Coping and recovering: advocates help victims move on from victimisation by providing ongoing emotional support, signposting to other specialist services, and empowering victims to recover.

Describing their advocate, one victim said: “She’s checked in on me via calls and text. She’s supported me through the darkest of times. It’s 5 long years and still awaiting trial date and she’s been my backbone. Without her support, I probably would have dropped the case!”

One advocate, reflecting on their role, said: “It’s making sure that the victims have got the language and empowering them to articulate themselves to ensure that services give them the response they deserve and that they’re entitled to; that the law says they’re entitled to.”

In particular, victims highlighted the importance of having an advocate act as a liaison with statutory services, challenging the police around charging and outcome decisions. Some suggested the police appeared to take their report more seriously once their advocate became involved, while others found their advocate’s support invaluable to cope with a stressful and often daunting process.

Reflecting on the report, the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales, Baroness Newlove, said: “We know navigating the criminal justice system can be challenging for victims, especially for those who have experienced high levels of trauma. Some even find the process itself retraumatising, feeling stranded and alone in what can sometimes be perceived as an uncaring and complex system. This is where victim advocates step in. Advocates support victim engagement by providing them with essential practical advice and emotional support at a time when they are attempting to negotiate the justice system and recover from their ordeal.”

However, the report also identifies significant challenges facing the advocacy sector, including the commissioning of services, high caseloads, staff retention and a lack of formal role recognition within the criminal justice system.

The report identifies several limitations in the current funding landscape for victim advocacy services, including competitive tendering processes and short-term funding cycles. This makes it difficult for services to plan for the long term and invest in staff training and development. Despite delivering positive outcomes, specialised ‘by and for’ services face unique funding challenges and disadvantageous tendering processes, limiting access for minoritised communities.

High caseloads are also impacting the quality of service. Many advocates carry excessive caseloads, increasing the risk of burnout and reducing the amount of time they can dedicate to each victim. The report found that 43% of IDVAs exceed what some organisations consider to be an excessive level, with some advocates reporting individual caseloads of up to 150 at any one time. Many highlighted the impact the pandemic and ongoing delays in the justice system had on increasing caseloads.

A lack of formal recognition within the criminal justice system can also result in some advocates being barred from accompanying victims into courtrooms, causing unnecessary distress.

To strengthen victim advocacy and guarantee access for all, the report recommends:

  • Enhanced and sustainable funding for advocacy services.
  • A national standard for training and accreditation of advocates.
  • Formal limits on advocate caseloads.
  • Greater recognition of the role of advocates within the criminal justice system.

Further commenting on the report, Baroness Newlove, said: “This report highlights the critical role that advocates play in supporting victims of crime. This is so important at a time when rates of victim withdrawal are at a near-all-time high and record number of cases awaiting court. Despite this, it is clear that the sector is facing significant challenges. It is crucial that we grip these challenges and ensure that victims have access to the high-quality advocacy services they deserve.”

For further information contact:
Thomas Cracknell
Head of Communications
07562 431727