Dame Vera Baird QC issues warning to Government as she publishes her first annual report since taking over as Victims’ Commissioner
“Two major pieces of legislation, coinciding with fresh thinking arising from the COVID lockdown, offers a once in a generation opportunity to bring radical change to the criminal justice system and in doing so, transform the experience of victims of crime,” says Dame Vera Baird QC, Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales as she launches her annual report.
In it she calls on the Government to be bold in its ambition and make the most of the opportunities created by the Domestic Abuse Bill, the promised Victims’ Law and the need to re-think how we deliver justice coming out of lockdown.
Dame Vera said: “Covid has forced all of us to step back and re-think how we do things. We know that in recent years, victims’ confidence in the justice system has fallen.
“The victims’ voice is not always being heard and too often they are treated as by-standers, with what few entitlements they have not being complied with,” she said.
Continuing: “As lockdown starts to lift and the public adjusts to the ‘new normal’ of living with social distancing, the government faces the huge challenge of getting the criminal justice system fully functioning once more.
“This will not be without its challenges. But whilst huge logistical problems face us, there are opportunities to do things differently and better.
“For example, we can maximise the potential use of remote evidence, including vulnerable victims giving evidence through pre-recorded cross-examination. These measures can reduce the ordeal of giving evidence and waiting so long to do so,” she said.
Dame Vera also refers to how frontline victim support services have moved to re-design their support to reflect the demands of social distancing. Virtual contact with victims, web chat and higher levels of engagement have all been positive developments.
“We need to be sure there is long term and sustainable funding for these charities,” she said.
“The Domestic Abuse Bill is on its passage through Parliament and recent government amendments have enhanced the Bill greatly. I want the government to go further, using the Bill to tackle issues such as the iniquitous treatment of migrant women who have no recourse to public funds, and specifically outlawing abusive treatment such as non-fatal strangulation and image-based abuse.
“The long-awaited Victims’ Law must give victims enforceable rights in the justice system, with criminal justice agencies being held to account when they don’t deliver. I also want to see vulnerable victims having the support of advisors throughout their criminal justice journey,” she said.
The 50-page report highlights Dame Vera’s work since taking on the role in June 2019, including: supporting victims’ charities during the pandemic, pressing for action in reversing the sharp drop in the number of rape prosecutions, her work on the Domestic Abuse Bill and the Victims’ Code.
In her first nine-months in office she has successfully prompted a review of the Unduly Lenient Scheme, called for a change in police bail legislation, worked with criminal justice agencies to deliver changes in criminal injuries compensation and the Victims’ Contact Scheme and commissioned important research on the overlap between domestic abuse and gang crime.
The report also sets out Dame Vera’s priorities for the coming year. These are for bereaved victims to have legal representation at inquests; seeking an end to the intrusive breach of privacy of victims who report sexual crime; and pressing the government for effective enforcement of victim entitlements in the Victims’ Code of Practice.
She pledges to continue her campaign to make sure the voice of victims of anti-social behaviour is being heard, as well as looking at how well victims of fraud are being supported.
And plans to do an in-depth piece of research looking at the provision of ‘Special Measures’ for vulnerable and intimidated victims giving evidence in court.
Dame Vera continued: “What a year to start my new role as Victims’ Commissioner! There’s been a general election and the purdah period which preceded it, and then almost straight away the global Coronavirus pandemic which has meant we have all had to find new ways of working with and supporting victims.
“Despite these challenges I have very much enjoyed my first few months in the role and look forward to really getting stuck into the next 12 months,” she concluded.