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Covid 19: Let’s not forget crime victims

When the first reports of the Coronavirus started to come out of China a couple of months ago, no one could predict the enormity of the changes that would take place in our lives as individuals and as a society (a global society). Those changes are now starting to be real and tangible: trips outside limited; pubs, restaurants, cinemas closed; escalating numbers of people having to be confined to home; and, of course, most significantly, more and more people becoming infected and, sadly, dying.

But in so many ways our lives and our society, our community, continues. Our vital and essential workers must continue to do what they do; our streets still need to be cleaned; our shops still need to be stocked; our streets still need to be places where, even though access is much reduced, we can  feel safe and protected. There are many examples of how life is continuing and, to a degree, some things might actually be improving – speaking to old friends, keeping an eye on vulnerable neighbours, helping join the new army of NHS volunteers to assist those less able to look after themselves. All this and more shows how such a crisis can bring out the best in people.

Flip the coin, however, and we see manifestations of selfishness and greed, a wanton disregard for the needs and safety of others – those scenes in the media from supermarkets were ugly and frightening. Internet scammers are already doing their worst.  So it’s crucial we don’t forget the need to look out for people who may not fit readily into one of the current “priority” groups, the elderly and infirm. Especially, when we can see the sad reality that there will be people trying to take advantage of this current crisis, we need to think about how best to support and reassure those who may well fall victim to criminal activity – it hasn’t gone away and nor has the need for support.

How can we make sure that those in need of support will continue to get it? We know that many organisations will continue to offer such support in the best ways that they can throughout all this. But we all need to think more about what can be done to ensure such support in rapidly changing circumstances : supporters, staff and volunteers will not be able to offer face to face support; there will be an increase of domestic abuse incidents, undoubtedly, as people are confined to their homes with all the additional pressures of worrying about rents, mortgages, paying for food; the police may find themselves increasingly (over ) stretched and so not able to respond as they would wish; people will feel increasingly isolated and alone if not abandoned.

We need to think creatively about our approach to maintaining good and effective support for victims during this period and our organisations need to promote the clear message that, whilst it might not be business as usual, we are still very much here to offer support, advice and, if nothing more, a listening ear to help people through this and through other difficulties that do not, sadly, go away in a time of crisis.

As a global society we have been encouraged, over many years now, to work in smarter and more agile ways: teleconferencing, hangouts, video and live links in court etc. Never has this been more important than now. Victims of crime must not be forgotten; we must reach out, be proactive in making sure our message and offer of support is delivered loud and clear, use all the means at our disposal to reassure people that they are still important and that, even if an imperfect way, we will still be here to try and meet their needs.

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TV cameras will soon be broadcasting from Crown Courts

Following a new piece of legislation which will allow sentencing remarks of High Court and Senior Circuit judges to be aired.

The Crown Court (Recording and Broadcasting) Order 2020 will allow cameras to broadcast from the Crown Court, although filming will be restricted to judges’ sentencing remarks only and no other court user – including victims, witnesses, jurors and court staff – may be filmed.

Though proceedings may already be broadcast from the Court of Appeal under certain conditions, extending this to the Crown Court means the public will be able to hear judges explain the reasons behind their sentences for the most serious offences.

This change to legislation, while partly the result of campaigning efforts by the BBC, ITN and Sky News, is part of the government’s wider court reform and digitalisation programme, which aims to use technology to demystify and improve people’s access to the justice system.

John Ryley, Head of Sky News, said: “The filming of judges sentencing remarks in the Crown Court is a great day for transparency in our courts. This is a further step in helping the public to understand the constraints under which judges work and the complexities of many of the biggest criminal cases.”

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Violence against women increasing as conviction of perpetrators plummet

A powerful editorial in last Sunday’s Observer newspaper linked the facts that domestic violence killings have hit a five-year high and reported rape cases increased by 9% in the last year.

The domestic violence bill was delayed again as one of the casualties of the prorogation of parliament,

Rape, it seems, is becoming effectively decriminalised, with the vast majority of perpetrators free to continue offending. While reported rapes are on a frightening upward trajectory, all the key statistics for counter measures are tumbling in the other direction: in the past year rape charges fell by 38%, prosecutions by 33% and convictions by 27%.

“Today, a woman reporting rape has just a 3% chance of seeing her alleged rapist convicted”, according to the Observer.

The DPP blames both the police, for trying to second guess DPP prosecution decisions and making fewer referrals, and the welter of evidence available via new technology, particularly smartphones, which needs to be trawled through to gather evidence and build a case.

The apportioning of blame on the police looks more than a little unfair when you consider that CPS prosecution rates for rape have fallen almost twice as fast as police referrals to the CPS. The Observer concludes that the figures indicate ‘a damaging change in approach to prosecuting rape by the CPS’.

Rapists, it seems, continue to benefit from both the myths and stereotypes that have always clouded and challenged rape case evidence and the desire of the CPS to improve its conviction rates, with prosecutors encouraged to ‘take more weak cases out of the system’.  Since prosecutors also advise police on which cases should be referred to the CPS, they consequently have considerable influence over the falling police referral rates blamed by the DPP.

Government austerity measures which have seen a fall of 20,000 in police numbers since 2010 will also have limited police capacity to track down and arrest suspects, as well as investigate and consider the weight of evidence required to bring a successful prosecution.

The case studies in the Observer article demonstrate clearly the shocking experiences victims go though. One victim was told it was a ‘positive’ case. A year later it was dropped, in part because she did not look particularly scared or nervous when seen in CCTV images from earlier that night. The CPS needs to accept greater responsibility for the ineffectiveness of the system for bringing rapists to justice, both to provide justice for the victims and to deter future perpetrators; taking weak cases out of the system is not the answer.

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Victims Rights to Privacy and Justice

The central point of any accusation and prosecution for the offence of rape is that of consent: did the complainant (victim) give consent to sexual activity or not? On that hinges the case and any possible conviction.

Once again the issue of consent has surfaced in the context of rape and other sexual offences. This time it relates to the issue of asking (some may suggest forcing) complainants (victims) to give consent for the police to trawl through (carefully assimilate) the data contained on the complainants mobile phone and other digital devices. Failure to give this consent may result in the termination of any proceedings. The rationale behind asking for this consent is that important information that relates to the case and upon which crucial decisions (including innocence or guilt) may be determined, could  be on the phone and so make it necessary for the police (and CPS) to have access to said phone data in order to proceed with the case. Victims of domestic abuse and violence may also find themselves in a similar position.

That, I must say, all sounds fairly reasonable. We all want as many relevant facts to be available so that a just and fair decision can be arrived at in any criminal proceedings. If there is information available that will help determine whether someone is guilty or innocent of a serious offence then it is surely reasonable to ask that this may be made available to those responsible for making such decisions;  ultimately a jury in a court trial.

Well, yes, so far so good. But is this suggestion of asking a victim (complainant) to hand over their phone, possibly for many months ( the guidance suggests that the police “may be able” to offer an alternative phone to the victim), fair and proportionate? In defending the new consent form being rolled out in police forces, Assistant Commissioner Ephgrave of the Metropolitan Police has, reassuringly, suggested that this is not the finished article but a useful step along the way. Yet the premise ( and so the foundation) of the form seems to be to help address the recent and highly damaging problems around disclosure in sexual offence trials which have attracted a lot of attention.

It is certainly the case that disclosure issues can and have made a complete hash of cases and that no one, complainant, defendant, the criminal justice system or us, the public, isn’t impacted by them particularly when it comes to confidence in the system. But the new consent form does not look like the right way to help address this. The problems in the past have been about disclosure – this is not the same as not knowing about or ignorance of available information. The material was there, the police and CPS had it; they just didn’t pass it on. I’m not sure how trawling through a mobile phone addresses this, though accept that it will certainly help gather lots more information.

And that’s another issue. If the police are able to keep the phone for an extended period and give it a thorough examination what happens to the information they glean. The guidance suggests it will be kept and states that if there is any evidence of other criminal activity it may be pursued. Does this help build confidence among victims? Consider a complainant (rape victim) who may have contacts who aren’t always absolute sticklers for obeying every law of the land – and, if being honest, I suspect that could apply to just about all of us. Knowing what is on the phone (the odd text, What’sApp, email) am I going to be relaxed about handing the phone over to the police? Am I, perhaps, not more likely to just forget about it and try to get on with my life? Am I more likely to be denied justice (that sounds clinical and not at all reflective of the trauma involved)?

And what about the perception that the desire to have access to all the data on a phone is but another way of building a picture of the victim that, in truth, should have nothing to do with the case. Remember the days when juries were asked to reflect on whether the short skirt the victim (complainant) was wearing contributed to the offence happening. That helped undermine  trust in the criminal justice system and it’s hard to see how this new measure, well intentioned as it is, will help restore said trust.

Asking victims (complainants) to hand over their mobile phones and consent to what some may see as a “fishing trip” isn’t the way to address the problems with disclosure. It is, perhaps, a bit of a sledgehammer approach to what is, obviously, a hugely sensitive area. I’m sure the motives are honourable and that the police and CPS are really trying to help. But it doesn’t look to have got off to a good start. If the criminal justice system is to work it must, as the Director of Public Prosecutions and AC Ephgrave said in their briefing command “trust and confidence”. This approach is, indeed, far from the finished article.

If all this sounds to be but an academic discussion let’s remember what this is really about, indeed, what our criminal justice system is (or should be) about: people. As a rape victim has recently said: “They were the most private details of my life and they were going to be revealed to anyone and everyone involved in the case when all I was trying to do was get justice. Who in their right mind would go ahead with a complaint when this is how they’re being treated?” she said. “People are just going to get away with rape.”

Best intentions are not always enough. We need also to be aware of unintended consequences.

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Quality Standards for victim support services in Serbia

Our collaboration with VSE

We are delighted to have been able to help Victim Support Europe and the Multi Donor Trust Fund for Justice Sector Support in Serbia with the production of their recent report.

Supporting Justice has collaborated on this piece of work and engaged with colleagues in Serbia over the past few years and we hope that this will play a significant part in improving the support offered and delivered to victims of crime in Serbia.

The report also recognises that Supporting Justice is leading the way and pioneering this approach in England and Wales. Our Quality Mark standards has been of real use in the development of ideas and production within the report, highlighting the need for standards, indicators and criteria to assess the effectiveness of victim care.
As the executive summary highlights;

“It is important to be able to verify the quality of aid to victims.”

Our Quality Mark

The development of our Victims Choice standards and the application of our independent and outcome focused approach is one that we think has intrinsic merit in delivering effective victim care.

The recipients of our Quality Mark think so too, recognising that it has helped them deliver even better service to victims.

It is heartening to read that our contribution to the improvement in victim care is recognised beyond these shores.
We look forward to continuing to assist others in their determination to improve victim services wherever they are needed.

 

Contact Us

If you would like to know more about our Quality Mark standards please get in touch.

As well as our Quality Mark assessment, we also offer a touchpoint analysis to help you determine if your organisation is “Quality Mark ready.”

We are happy to provide more information on request.

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