If you’ve been the victim of a crime, you may have had a brilliant level of service from the police and the criminal justice system. You may feel that justice was done, and that you were treated with courtesy and respect. I hope so. But the reality is that for most victims of crime — I prefer the term ‘survivors’ — the experience is terrible, making the experience of crime even worse in the aftermath.
Confidence in the criminal justice system is in sharp decline. In a Victims’ Commissioner survey of victims conducted in April 2020, just 18% of respondents felt that victims are given enough support through the court process. For some of the very worst crimes, for example rape, the survivors have little confidence that their evidence will lead to conviction. In the same survey only one in seven rape survivors believed they would get justice.
The issue is not just the huge backlog of Crown Court cases that has built up over the Covid crisis, with the likelihood that some cases will take years to reach court. I’ve even heard from senior figures that some may take a decade. As Diana Fawcett, chief executive of Victim Support has said ‘long waits for trial cause stress and anxiety among victims, and can undermine public confidence in justice.’
It is not just that victims and witnesses often feel like cogs in a machine, without adequate psychological support or tailored advice, or that they must wait in corridors with the families of the people on trial. The real issue is that without the active consent of survivors of crime, and witnesses to crime, the criminal justice system starts to fail us all.
For example, in England and Wales, the most recent Home Office statistics up to September 2020 show that a record quarter of cases had been closed down because victims did not support the prosecution, a proportion that has more than doubled in the past five years. When you look at survivors of rape, the figure rises to 42% and complainants of violence against the person shows 44%. This means that thousands of criminals are literally getting away with their crimes. No wonder violent crime is up in Sussex and across the country.
Recently, I met with Labour’s shadow minister for victims Peter Kyle MP to discuss Labour’s alternative. We agreed that we need a robust Victims’ Law to protect victims’ rights and encourage more prosecutions. We need legally enforceable rights for survivors of crime, including the right to information, independent support services, and protection from intimidation and reprisals. The Conservative Government has been promising a victims’ law for years, but we are still waiting.
As police and crime commissioner (PCC) for Sussex I would put survivors of crime at the heart of the criminal justice system, with a new approach to long-term care and psychological support for survivors and witnesses. No-one should be deterred from giving evidence or pursuing a prosecution because they feel the experience will be detrimental to their mental or physical well-being. The fact is that if law-abiding people don’t trust the system and avoid it, the only winners are the criminals.
Paul Richards is the Labour & Co-operative candidate for Sussex police and crime commissioner (PCC). The election is on 6 May 2021.