The victims’ commissioner for England and Wales has stated that victims of crime are losing their lives while waiting for justice due to court delays of up to six years.
As a newly proposed law to protect victims’ rights is being examined in the House of Lords, Baroness Helen Newlove expressed concerns about the state of the justice system. She stated that the system is severely overwhelmed, causing unacceptable delays and causing victims to experience severe mental health issues.
According to her, there are victims of rape, sexual abuse, and child abuse who have to wait up to six years before their cases go to court. This delay can have devastating consequences, as one girl ended up taking her own life due to the lengthy process.
Individuals who have experienced previous harm and emotional distress are attempting to move forward with their lives, but are unable to due to a constant feeling of anticipation. Unfortunately, for some people, this can significantly impact their physical and mental health, leading them to take their own life.
She stated that although laws could enhance the treatment of victims in the system, there would be minimal impact without taking additional measures to address court delays. She also expressed disapproval of the government’s proposal to recruit 150 judges and 100 officials and utilize additional court rooms for expedited Rwandan appeals, while neglecting to do the same for the criminal justice system.
She expressed disappointment if they were to receive the items, as there are other tasks that need to be addressed. She questioned why this action is not taken for all cases and why certain cases are prioritized over others. This decision does not seem fair to the victims who are anxiously awaiting their day in court.
The most recent data reveals that there is a record number of unresolved criminal cases in the crown courts. According to the Ministry of Justice, as of September 2023, there were 66,547 cases pending in England, with 28% being in the court system for over a year.
These delays add to the duration of police investigations and the time needed for both prosecutors and defense attorneys to prepare their arguments, which can take multiple years. Currently, the average length of time for an offense to be resolved is 671 days.
The Ministry of Justice announced that it had implemented “effective measures” to expedite justice for victims. They also stated that courts are now operating at full capacity after facing delays due to the pandemic and strikes. These measures include the establishment of two permanent “super courtrooms” in Manchester and Loughborough, utilizing Nightingale courtrooms, and investing in the recruitment of 1,000 judges. According to a spokesperson, the crown court is currently experiencing a higher volume of criminal cases than in the past two years.
However, Newlove expressed that the ongoing backlogs serve as a reminder for ministers to think outside the box. She compared the situation to previous incidents such as the Post Office and infected blood scandals, where individuals lost their lives while waiting for justice. Newlove emphasized the impact on mental health and stressed that these are people whose lives have been affected by a system that should have provided protection.
Newlove, a member of the Conservative party, was chosen as the independent victims’ commissioner for England and Wales in October. She previously served in the same role from 2013-2019. Her advocacy for victims’ rights began after her husband, Garry, was fatally attacked in 2007 in front of their two daughters.
She mentioned that there has been notable advancement in certain aspects since her husband’s death – such as increased recognition of the difficulties faced by victims and a proposed legislation to enhance their rights currently being reviewed by parliament – but in other areas, the situation has deteriorated.
“We are now discussing victims more than before, which is a step in the right direction. However, the issue lies in our criminal justice system,” she explained. “While one aspect has seen improvement, the other has not. It can be frustrating and feel like we are making slow progress.”
According to her, there are no easy solutions, but some possible starting points could involve extending court hours and providing higher compensation for judges who are willing to work evenings and weekends. This would assist in addressing the backlog of cases.
According to Newlove, there seems to be a strong willingness among parties to enhance the treatment of victims, as demonstrated by the ongoing review of the Victims and Prisoners Bill in the House of Lords. This bill will mandate the cooperation of police, council, and health agencies in providing support services for victims.
However, she expressed that she would be “extremely disappointed” if the bill passed in its current state. Along with organizations that support victims, she is urging for changes to be made, such as expanding support to families of individuals who were murdered outside of the country, granting more rights to victims of mentally ill offenders, implementing safeguards to protect the privacy of victims’ records (such as therapy notes), enforcing stricter measures to hold agencies like the police accountable for providing victim services, and extending rights to victims of persistent antisocial behavior.
Newlove is concerned that the bill lacks effectiveness and will disappoint victims if no changes are made. She states that this goes against the intentions and assurances given to her as a victims campaigner when she entered the House of Lords. However, with the proposed changes, she sees a unique opportunity to revolutionize the treatment of victims. She emphasizes the importance of actively listening to victims and taking action, rather than just paying lip service.