We cannot allow victims of crime to become victims of our justice system
It takes strength to stand up to the preparators of crime and I worry that victims will be reluctant to do so for fear of the time it will take to receive justice.
Last week the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) released a report stating that the UK justice system is under ‘unprecedented pressure’ as a result of Covid-19 and is no longer able to provide ‘justice for victims, offenders, taxpayers and society’.
It found that the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) does not have a clear sense of priorities as it attempts to manage significant changes in every part of its system (it currently has 15 projects listed under the Government’s Major Projects Portfolio).
The viability of prisons (despite a major building programme being undertaken), is under threat, with an “eye-watering maintenance backlog of around £1 billion” having accumulated which “poses a real threat to achieving a safe and secure prison estate”. Furthermore, the wellbeing and life-chances of prisoners have also significantly reduced since the beginning of the pandemic due to the necessity of additionally restrictive measures.
I fully appreciate the significance of these issues. But it must be remembered that the real victims in all this are the victims of crime.
The court system is currently facing a severe backlog of cases, which in June 2020, the Crown Prosecution Service claimed would take 10 years to clear. March 2020 saw the suspension of jury trials as a consequence of the first national lockdown. Whilst courts have slowly reopened since then, social distancing has meant that the number of hearings taking place has had to be reduced.
It is easy to blame this backlog on the pandemic, but cases were growing before Covid-19 hit. So whilst the problem has been exacerbated by Covid-19, it was not created by it. This realisation should lead us to re-examine the root causes of this delay, conscious that a return to a post-pandemic normality will not, in itself, bring the answers we seek.
We heard in the committee evidence session how a young sexual assault victim had been waiting four years to receive justice. This is clearly not good enough.
I know at first-hand how crime can impact an individual and family
It was once said that the moment justice dies, is the moment society dies. I believe that to be true.
It takes strength to stand up to the preparators of crime and I worry that victims will be reluctant to do so for fear of the time it will take to receive justice. This is especially alarming as we have seen the rates of domestic abuse rise since the first lockdown.
It is often only the assurance of swift and targeted support from the justice system that gives victims strength to report and then face the perpetrator of abuse or violent crime. Without that assurance, we risk confidence in the institutions which underpin our justice system beginning to fail – and the justice system, in turn, failing those it is there to protect.
In my maiden speech I paid tribute to my mother who suffered – and protected my sister and me -from domestic abuse. So, I know at first-hand how crime can impact an individual and family – with the consequences often rippling out in concentric circles and creating wider societal problems.
I welcome the fact that the government has committed to reducing these waiting times and will be investing £40 million in funding towards supporting victims (including providing independent advisers in the cases of sexual abuse and domestic violence).
It has also pledged as additional funding to support the court system in reducing the current backlog. But more needs to be done to ensure the existence of these services is clearly communicated to victims.
Whilst this commitment and increased funding is welcome, it was once said by Thomas Jefferson ‘The price of freedom is constant vigilance’. As a society we must be constantly vigilant for any signs which impact upon our justice system and, in turn, compromise our freedoms.
Shaun Bailey is the Conservative MP for West Bromwich West.
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