Dame Vera Baird called for assurances from HMCTS that pressures on the court system, including the growing case backlog, would not "outweigh the potential adverse impacts on victims and witnesses".

HM Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) published a rapid consultation on COVID operating hours (COH) in the Crown Courts. HMCTS said the returns will feed into decision-making about whether, and how, HMCTS proceeds.

Responding to the HMCTS consultation on extending the COH model to more Crown courts, the Victims’ Commissioner said she was “concerned” that the COH proposals “rest on only a limited set of data gathered on COH’s impact on victims and witnesses.”

Owing to the limited data and potential adverse impacts on vulnerable witnesses, Dame Vera writes that it would be “preferable” if no cases with vulnerable victims or witnesses were listed in COH courts, adding that she recommends further assessment and monitoring “to facilitate a more considered approach.”

She highlighted the potential adverse impact on victims from the proposed ‘hard stops’ at the end of morning and afternoon sessions, and the potential for indirect discrimination, adding “these impacts don’t seem to have been considered enough.”

Dame Vera Baird QC, Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales said:

“I support the Ministry of Justice taking steps to respond to the Covid pandemic and tackle the backlog of cases. This work is important if we are to prevent victims facing years of delay in their fight for justice.

I am, however, concerned that the HMCTS proposals for Covid Operating Hours (COH) rest on only a limited set of data gathered on COH’s impact on victims and witnesses. This includes very little data on the potential for victim attrition, which is a key concern.

We also need to consider the risk of further harm caused by assigning vulnerable victims to COH courts. There are ‘hard stops’ at the end of an AM or PM session. This suggests some victim/witnesses may be called back to court for a second day to give evidence, potentially aggravating their distress.

There should be an assessment of the probability of indirect discrimination. More women than men go to court about high harm crimes and so are likelier to suffer the extra stress if their evidence is split. The early starts or late finishes will also disproportionately affect women as they are more often primary carers and childcare arrangements tend to cover ordinary business hours. These impacts don’t seem to have been considered enough.

I would like to see assurances from HMCTS that the increasing pressures of the courts’ backlog will not outweigh the potential adverse impacts on victims and witnesses. It looks as if it would be preferable if no cases with vulnerable victims or witnesses were listed in COH courts but I would certainly recommend further assessment and monitoring to facilitate a more considered approach.”

See the full consultation response.