‘Low point’ for confidence in judicial process, Victims’ Commissioner says
Confidence in the judicial process is “at a particularly low point”, the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales has warned.
Dame Vera Baird QC said a combination of issues – such delays in cases getting to court, dire conviction rates for offences including rape, and concerns over the way police have investigated certain high-profile cases – left her unconvinced by the prospect of getting justice were she to be a victim of crime herself.
It came as she presented her annual report to Parliament, providing a retrospective of her office’s work across the last 12 months.
Dame Vera told the PA news agency: “Would I feel confident [of] a satisfactory outcome? No I don’t think it’s at all possible for that feeling at the outset of a case at this time.
“I think it is very poor at the moment. I remain as positive as can be.
“But I suspect we are at a particularly low point – especially with the (case) backlog.
“And so, as they say, the only way is up.”
Latest figures from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) showed there were 59,532 cases waiting to be dealt with by crown courts at the end of March 2021 – an increase of 45 per cent on the first quarter of 2020 when there were 41,015.
Elsewhere, concerns have been raised about poor conviction rates in sexual offences.
Figures from the Crown Prosecution Service for 2019/20 show 1,439 suspects were convicted of rape or lesser offences in England and Wales last year – the lowest level since records began, and down from 1,925 the previous year, despite reports of adult rape to police almost doubling since 2015/16.
There are an estimated 128,000 victims of rape and attempted rape a year, but only 1.6 per cent of reported cases results in a charge.
Dame Vera said little had changed in the past year, when she described rape offences as being effective “decriminalised” due to low conviction rates.
Reflecting on those comments in the 2021 report, Dame Vera said: “Nothing in the past year has swayed me from that perspective.
“The uncomfortable truth is that if you are raped in Britain today, your chances of seeing justice are slim.”
This was despite the publication last month of the Government’s long-awaited rape review, which pledged to focus more on the behaviour of the suspect than the complainant in future, and led to an apology for years of failing victims.
Dame Vera also criticised the policing operation for the Sarah Everard vigil on Clapham Common, which she said could be argued was “symbolic of the lack of authority – and equality – the police seem to have for women”.
The All Party Parliamentary Group on Democracy and the Constitution previously said police breached “fundamental rights” after protesters were bundled to the ground and arrested after gathering in memory of 33-year-old Ms Everard, who was killed after disappearing while walking home in March.
Comparing the Clapham Common operation with the approach to dealing with football supporters in central London during Euro 2020, Dame Vera said: “This is women complaining about assault and abuse which is criminal which is not being policed.
“They demonstrate about it and they are harshly policed.”
The Independent Office for Police Conduct is currently investigating whether the Metropolitan Police Service failed to investigate two allegations of indecent exposure relating to Ms Everard’s killer, then-serving police officer Wayne Couzens, just days before the killing.
Dame Vera said the whole investigation into Couzens further shattered confidence in complaining.
The Victims’ Commissioner also expressed concern that elements of the forthcoming Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill undermined the Rape Review, effectively pitting the Home Office against the MoJ.
She told PA: “I sometimes think they are riding a two-headed horse and going in different directions – one from the Home Office and one from the MoJ – who knows which jockey is the boss?”
She said her office’s work next year will include pressing to end the scourge of online trolling.
A Government spokesperson said: “We’re doing more than ever to support victims of crime. This includes our recent action plan to transform the criminal justice system’s response to rape, passing the landmark Domestic Abuse Act, and just today unveiling a new strategy to tackle violence against women and girls.
“We will also enshrine victims’ rights in legislation, while hundreds of millions is being invested to increase court capacity, deliver swifter justice and fund vital support services.”