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  • Writer's pictureDurham Pro Bono Blog

Justice Delayed is Justice Denied

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.


By Sim Sunner


Victims of Crime are being failed by the very system that is seeking justice on their behalf. Even before the Pandemic, the backlog of Criminal Cases was unjustifiable and put justice at risk.



The Covid-19 Pandemic has undeniably brought the already struggling Criminal Justice System here in England and Wales, to its knees. In December 2020 it was reported that as a result of the Pandemic the backlog of Crown Court cases amounted to 54,115. With the Magistrates Court Backlog peaking at 420,459.[1]

And these staggering numbers are partially the result of the Court shutting down during the first Lockdown in March 2020 and difficulty enforcing social distancing in courts not designed for such a purpose. Adjournments as a result of poor technological infrastructure for online and hybrid hearings that led to rescheduling also have contributed to these numbers. Defendants being told their court dates have been rescheduled to 2022 despite being formally charged in 2019.[2]


But the Pandemic has only exacerbated and exposed a crisis in our Criminal Justice System that was previously being ignored.


The Pandemic has forced the Government to do something in order to alleviate this mounting pressure in the short term. It is apparent however that the consequences will be long term and devastating, a consequence that will continue to disproportionally affect the Victims of Crime.

Victims Support, an independent charity for those who have been victims of crime, have highlighted how these increased delays have effected victims waiting for justice. 89% of Victims Supports staff have reported an increased negative impact on victims’ mental health. As well as 77% of its staff reporting that the delays have negatively affected victims confidence in the Criminal Justice System. And perhaps most alarmingly the Charity reported that 64% of its staff highlighted increased concern for the safety of victims.[3]


And this is a concern that is echoed amongst those who work in the Criminal Justice System.[4] Victims are having to put there lives on hold for years, waiting for justice and scarifying their mental health as a result. These delays threaten the safety of Victims of Domestic abuse and sexual violence in particular. As well as this delaying justice like this reduces the likelihood of it ever being served. Long waits and the rescheduling of court dates on the day they were originally supposed to take place have resulted in both Victims and witnesses dropping out of the process, thus preventing Justice ever being served and potentially dangerous perpetrators having charges against them dropped.


With the quality of evidence and consequently justice under threat. What is the government doing to combat the problem of the case backlog and restore victims faith in the system?


In the short term, the Ministry of Justice has invested quickly in both digital technology to facilitate online hearing and so-called Nightingale Courts, emergency Covid-secure courtrooms. As of late February 2021. 40 Nightingale Courts are already operational, with a further 14 being set up in hotels and conferences centres to tackle cases with multiple defendants. The Government reports that this will boost remote hearings by 4,000%.[5]

The Lord Chancellor has continuously highlighted that £113m is being invested in the Criminal Justice System in order to alleviate the pressure and backlog by hiring additional staff and safety equipment. On top of this, an additional £142 million has been promised for technological improvements and the modernisation of Courtrooms. Citing how improvements have already been made, as there are currently hundreds of Jury trials taking place each week.[6]


The Lord Chancellor boasted that these measures have brought the number of pending cases has now reached pre-pandemic levels. But the pre-pandemic levels are nothing to celebrate or strive for. Year long waits for Victims seeking Justice were the standard before the Pandemic. Barristers and others working day to day in the Criminal Justice System have highlighted despite the emergency measures being put into place, the growing backlog of Criminal Cases is an issue that has been exacerbated by the Pandemic and not caused by it. In order to tackle the problem in its entirety, simply put, more needs to be done.


Barrister and Judge Amanda Pinto QC highlighted that its long-term investment is was truly is needed. As is a radical shift in position from the Government. The Backlog was created by the Government and they became content with it by not wanting to fund additional sitting days needed to tackle it purely because they wanted to delay costs.[7] This is illustrated by the budget for Crown Courts England and Wales allowed for judges to sit for 108,000 days in 2010 compared to 86,000 in 2020 before the pandemic.[8]


Long Term remedies need to focus on Victims, ensuring they are kept engaged and supported throughout the Criminal Justice Process.

One proposal is to strengthen existing provisions in place to protect victims of crime. The Victims Code is a code of practice that governs services to be provided in England and Wales to victims of criminal conduct, it ensures victims right to information on the ongoing investigation as well as the right to make a victim impact statement at court, amongst other rights.[9] An updated version is set to come into place in April this year to strength rights. But its actual benefit is questionable when the latest figures suggest that only 1 in 5 victims have heard of the provisions it sets out.

Labour’s shadow victims minister Peter Kyle has to lead the fresh call to put an improved version of the Victims Code into law in light of successive Conservative governments failing to out the existing Victims Code into law despite pledging to since 2015.[10] Labour’s Victims Bill aims to reconnect victims to the Criminal Justice System by making there rights “un-ignorable” and imposing consequences on departments who fail to respect these rights.[11]

A report on the Constitutional Powers of the Victim’s Commissioner for England and Wales[12] highlighted significant gaps in the powers of Victims’ Commissioner and suggested that in order to deliver on the interests of victims additional powers such as the ability undertake an effective review of the Operation of the Code and to bring legal proceedings for the Public interest in upholding the rights of the code. Such powers would allow victims to pursue legal actions themselves and enforce the code.[13]


Undoubtedly, in order to truly respect and uphold the rights of victims of crimes both the historic under-funding of the Criminal Justice System needs to be addressed and additional rights and powers need to be enshrined into the law. The Pandemic forced the government to take action in the short term. In the Long term however, the Government must stop ignoring the crisis it created.



 

[1] Casciani, ‘Covid and the Courts: Grave Concerns for Justice warn Watchdogs’ (BBC News, 19 January 2021) < https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-55712106 > accessed 15 February 2021. [2] Goodier & Chakelian, ‘Justice, delayed: How Covid-19 exposes our crumbling courts system’ (NewsStatesman, 21 February 2021) <https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2021/02/justice-delayed-how-covid-19-exposes-our-crumbling-courts-system> accessed 15 February 2021. [3] Almeida, 'Crime and Covid-19: How Victims and Survivors have been impacted by the Pandemic' [2020] Victims support.org. [4] Cunliffe, ‘Why the Government can’t blame the crisis in our courts on Covid-19 Alone’ (NewStatesmen, 25 January 2021) <https://www.newstatesman.com/2021/01/why-government-can-t-blame-crisis-our-courts-covid-19-alone > accessed 15 February 2021. [5] Ministry of Justice, ‘More Courts to Speed up Justice’ (gov.uk, 17 February 2021) <https://www.gov.uk/government/news/more-courts-to-speed-up-justice> accessed 17 February 2021. [6] ibid. [7] Secker, ‘COVID and the courts: Can justice still be served?’ (Sky News, 15 February 2021) <https://news.sky.com/story/covid-and-the-courts-can-justice-still-be-served-12216360 > accessed 15 February 2021. [8] Casciani, ‘Is four years too long to wait for Justice?’ (BBC News, 17 February 2021) <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-56092372> accessed 17 February 2021. [9] Ministry of Justice, ‘Victims of crime: Understanding the support you can expect’ [2014] gov.uk. [10] ‘Victims of Crime Law planned by Governments’ (BBC News, 14 September 2014) <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-29193548> accessed 17 February 2021. [11] Catt, ‘Victims of Crimes retraumatised by system’ (BBC News, 9 February 2021) <https://www.bbc.co.uhttps//www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-56092372k/news/uk-politics-55986198 > accessed 17 February 2021. [12] Cox, Lamont and Sunkin, ‘Constitutional Powers of the Victim’s Commissioner for England and Wales’ [2020] Victims Commissioner. [13] Cox & Lamont, ‘Why the courts and police should be held responsible for failing victims of crime’ (The Conversation, 22 December 2020) <https://theconversation.com/why-the-courts-and-police-should-be-held-responsible-for-failing-victims-of-crime-151956> accessed 17th February 2021.

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