UK’s ‘broken’ criminal justice system is in ‘chaos’, former victims’ tsar warns

Exclusive: Dame Vera Baird accuses ministers of seeking to avoid criticim of ‘poor’ policies by failing to appoint new victims commissioner

Andy Gregory
Tuesday 03 October 2023 09:00 BST
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<p>Dame Vera Baird resigned as Victims’ Commissioner on 30 September 2022, accusing government of ‘sidelining’ her office</p>

Dame Vera Baird resigned as Victims’ Commissioner on 30 September 2022, accusing government of ‘sidelining’ her office

The “broken” criminal justice system is in “chaos” with Rishi Sunak’s government showing “no creative thinking” in its approach to easing the courts backlog, the former victims’ commissioner has warned.

Speaking one year after resigning, Dame Vera Baird said urgent action was needed to cut long waits in courts which make victims feel “neglected”.

She also criticised the government for failing to appoint a new commissioner for 12 months since she stepped down and accused ministers of “downgrading” victims’ interests and “sidelining” her office.

She told The Independent: “There doesn’t seem to be any creative government thinking about how to deal with the courts backlog, the long waits and the risk of victims’ consequent sense of neglect.

“You have to hand it to them – very little is being prosecuted, people are not being supported to cope with what has happened to them and are falling out of the system, but somehow the court backlog is getting longer and longer.”

She added: “It seems like chaos.”

Her comments came as new figures show the crown court backlog had spiralled to a new record high of nearly 65,000 cases, having nearly doubled since 2019. The Independent has also reported that as many as 150 suspects had been languishing in prison for five years while awaiting trial.

Dame Vera also accused ministers of seeking to avoid criticism of “poor” policies by failing to appoint a new victims commissioner.

Dame Vera Baird was victims’ commissioner for three years

“I do not know why the government is not making an appointment, unless it is because they don’t want what it may see as the aggravation of somebody pointing out that many of the things they have announced with great bravado are not necessarily going to be any good for victims,” she said.

“A victims commissioner would expect to have input into new announcements as we tried hard to do, in the Victims Bill. But, the government disregarded almost all of what we recommended. I would have had real criticisms of the few poor announcements they have made since – and any commissioner would do the same.”

That legislation, recently renamed the Victims and Prisoners Bill, now focuses heavily on prisoners, with moves to increase sentences and allow ministers to intervene in the independent parole process for “top tier” offenders – despite prisons being so full that inmates are having to be housed in police cells instead.

“Increasing sentencing to ‘put victims at the heart of the criminal justice system’ is to misunderstand,” said Dame Vera.

“Clearly some victims campaign keenly for tougher sentences, usually for the crime which has affected them, and that is to be respected. However, the criminal justice system is now so broken that sentencing is less important to victims.”

Instead, “there are excellent simple things that this government could and should have done in the long-awaited bill” which could help victims of crime, said Dame Vera, who has also served as a barrister, Labour government minister, and police and crime commissioner prior to holding the post from 2019 to 2022.

“Essentially victims want to be treated decently with real interest from the police, information about how the system works and how their own case might proceed,” she said.

“Being a victim can be one of the worst things to happen to a person and they will be affected by it, disturbed and scared or in the worst cases deeply traumatised. They need to feel that they are considered and given the best help to get over this.

“If the criminal justice system itself does not treat them well, they do not cope and recover as they should with the risk that we are seeing now that they will withdraw from the case or not be able to give their evidence well. That is a serious risk to justice.”

During her tenure, Dame Vera made several detailed recommendations on how to improve the Victims’ Bill, and said that “until the last year before I resigned, the job of victims commissioner was mainly a positive one because the secretary of state actively engaged and wanted to make things better for victims”.

But in her resignation letter last September, she lamented that the bill remained “inadequate” and warned that then-justice secretary Dominic Raab’s plans to override the Human Rights Act with a new Bill of Rights – now paused – “so severely [threatened]” victims’ rights that it undermined any progress the Victims Bill could bring.

“An enforceable strengthened ‘victims code’ in the bill with a complaints system to ensure that it worked did look possible, but then the government had lost interest in favour of attacking human rights and claiming that increasing sentences was how to make victims satisfied,” said Dame Vera.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “We understand how important the role of victims’ commissioner is and there has been no attempt to deliberately delay the appointment of the next one. The recruitment is underway and we will confirm the outcome of this process as soon as possible.

“It is vital that victims and survivors can access the support they need which is why we are quadrupling funding for victim and witness specialist support services by 2025 compared to 2010, including granting £26m to more than 60 support organisations through the Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Fund.”

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