How the criminal justice system treats victims is criminal
In the vast majority of cases, our clients have already been through the criminal justice system by the time they come to us and for the majority of those clients it has been a most unpleasant experience. So it came as no surprise, when the findings of the report “Survivors Experience of Court and Applying for Compensation”, published last month by Westminster’s All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse, mirrored the views held by our clients.
Theoretically, victims should be at the centre of the whole process with a focus on their needs before, during and after the case, given there would be no case to try had they not come forward and the key role they play throughout. But the reality could not be further removed from this. From the moment the offence is reported and a statement given, victims are made to feel they are peripheral to the case. There is a general sense of lack of control over what happens next and a feeling of being discarded once the process concludes.
Key concerns highlighted in the APPG report
As the APPG’s report highlights, the key concerns victims commonly raise about the criminal justice system include:
1. Lack of communication and information
The report found that:
- 69% of victims felt that they were not given appropriate information about the process
- 80% of victims had not been informed about how appeals worked
- 79% of victims felt they were not listened to as part of the sentencing process
- 69% of victims felt they were not given appropriate explanations about support about the sentence
- 75% of survivors had not been informed about parole
According to the report, the wait for sexual offences cases to reach trial is an average of 280 days from when a defendant is charged until the conclusion of the court case. Add to this the number of times a case may have to be adjourned during this period, we can begin to understand the distress victims feel and the profound effect the process can have on their lives.
3. Special measures
Special measures can take the form of giving evidence from behind a screen, giving evidence in private or via a video link and having cross-examination evidence pre-recorded. Victims of sexual offences are eligible for these measures at the court’s discretion. However, the report highlights that 44% victims were not given the opportunity to give evidence from behind a screen or remotely. The failure by the criminal courts to recognise the need for special measures can seriously diminish the quality of the victims’ evidence due to their fear or distress about seeing the perpetrator.
The way in which victims are cross-examined remains a huge concern, with most victims feeling they are the ones in the wrong and being put on trial. As set out in the report, the perpetrators are allowed to rely on good character witnesses but the victims are not. On the contrary, victims are put through a character assassination to undermine their evidence.
5. Lack of support
Victims generally feel unsupported throughout their involvement with the criminal justice system.
They are often told that they should not engage in therapy before trial as this may affect the quality of their evidence. This is a myth which needs to be dispelled because therapy can certainly help strengthen victims’ ability to deal with the difficulties they face during the criminal process.
In this regard, the report also highlights the important role which Independent Sexual Violence Advisers (ISVAs) can play throughout the criminal justice process by providing advice and support and securing successful outcomes. Yet it found that of those victims whose case progressed to court, 52% were not offered ISVA support.
Once the case concludes, what victims are most aggrieved about is the feeling of abandonment, as summarised in the report:
“Survivors described a feeling of being discarded by the criminal justice system as they had ‘served their purpose’ at the conclusion of the trial. The case closure must be seen as a bifurcation moment when survivors are directed towards appropriate continuing services. This is undoubtedly the responsibility of the justice system which has requested that they come forward”.
Recommendations from the APPG
Some of the recommendations put forward by the APPG to improve the experience of the criminal justice system for victims include:
- mandatory training for all court staff that gives them a basic knowledge of trauma and its impact on witnesses
- minimum standard of support for victims through the court process, ideally through an ISVA
- realistic timelines to victims at the start of the criminal justice process including early notification of adjournments
- an automatic right to special measures
- a statutory right to a debrief session to ensure victims understand the case outcome and are being referred on for further support
The way forward
It takes huge courage for victims to come forward and they battle with emotions of self-blame and self-doubt, amongst others, before taking that step. Ensuring victims feel empowered should therefore be one of the purposes the criminal justice seeks to serve. It is clear that this is not happening currently and systemic improvements are needed in order to achieve this.
Each victim’s experience will dictate the decision of many others to come forward and the criminal justice system must accept responsibility for this.
Zahra Awaiz-Bilal is an associate solicitor in the Abuse team at Bolt Burdon Kemp. If you feel you may have a claim or are enquiring on behalf of a loved one, contact Zahra free of charge and in confidence on 020 7288 4839 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Alternatively, complete this form and one of the solicitors in the Abuse team will contact you. Find out more about the Abuse Team.