Chronic underfunding of the criminal justice system has left victims facing a “bleak” picture, the victims’ commissioner for England and Wales has warned.
Dame Vera Baird said radical action was needed to improve the justice system, with a lack of support for victims of crime and long delays leaving many victims – particularly rape victims – lacking the confidence that they would receive justice.
“There is chronic underfunding and an apparent lack of a strategic approach to improving the criminal justice system so it can deliver,” said Baird, after she had presented her annual report to parliament.
“I urge people to always report crime, but as to whether victims can have confidence that there will be a satisfactory outcome is very questionable just now.”
The report came as the government released its long-awaited violence against women and girls strategy (VAWG) on Wednesday, after 180,000 people responded to a consultation on women’s safety, the majority after the murder of Sarah Everard in March.
The home secretary, Priti Patel, indicated that she would support a new law to tackle street sexual harassment, and review the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) in higher education and a public heath campaign focused on prevention.
The Government Equalities Office also published a consultation on Wednesday promising to force employers to protect staff from sexual harassment from customers as well as colleagues, which the TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady, called “a victory for years of trade union campaigning” and survivors.
In her annual report, Baird said the backlog of cases in the crown courts, exacerbated by the pandemic, was resulting in an increasing number of people dropping out of the system.
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 – up 45% on the first quarter of 2020.
The number of victims withdrawing support for criminal cases has increased between 1 and 4 percentage points a year since 2015, and in the nine months to December 2020 was 27% across all crimes. In the past five years, the attrition rate for rape cases has increased from 25% to 43%.
“It’s a bleak picture and radical action is essential,” said Baird.
A year ago, Baird said that rape had effectively been decriminalised, after convictions fell by 64% since 2016-7 to a record low. Last month, government ministers said they were “ashamed” of failing rape victims in a landmark rape review, but Baird said it had been carried out by those “responsible for the poor state of rape in the first place”, adding: “an extraordinary mea culpa can’t disguise serious compromise”.
“Last year, I warned that we were witnessing the effective decriminalisation of rape,” she 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.”
Baird welcomed elements of the strategy such as better support services for minority communities and a new national police lead for VAWG and the communications campaign, but said the strategy overall was “piecemeal”.
Andrea Simon, the director of the End Violence Against Women coalition, said the new police lead should be accompanied with a promise to make VAWG a national strategic priority, but welcomed the recognition in the strategy that “the seriousness and scale of violence against women warrants radical change and a whole systems approach”.
A government spokesperson said it was doing “more than ever” to support victims of crime, including the Domestic Abuse Act and its VAWG strategy.
“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,” they said.