The report by the criminal justice joint inspectorate published today does not make for easy reading. It demonstrates, starkly, the mounting problems for our criminal justice system exacerbated by the Covid 19 pandemic; many of these problems pre date the pandemic but the last year has certainly raised new challenges and highlighted some of these pre existing challenges to the delivery of a fair, transparent and supportive justice service across the whole of England and Wales.
“We have grave concerns that this impact will prove deleterious to victims, witnesses and defendants alike.” So say the inspectors in the foreword to their report. These are not words used lightly. The growing backlog of cases waiting to be dealt with is clearly one of the biggest challenges to be faced by the justice system in many years. It will, as the report suggests, require a high level of coordination between agencies if it is to be addressed as well as an increase of resources to a sector that has, over many years, seen the availability of those resources diminish.
The impact of this growing backlog is being felt in the lives of many. An interview this morning on the Today programme with a victim of domestic abuse summed this up. The victim who reported to the police in 2019 is now looking at a potential court date in 2022, three years after the initial complaint. She has been offered little by way of updates and found out, well after the event, that bail conditions for the alleged perpetrator had been changed. Unacceptable? Yes. Unusual? Sadly not.
Many people have been highlighting such deficiencies for years. The mantra that “victims are at the heart of the criminal justice system” has been trotted out regularly for at least twenty years but, alas, more honoured in the breach than the observance. We have a Code of Practice for victims that has many worthy aspirations but has so often been woefully applied and let victims down: it’s a useful tool on paper but not well applied in practice.
In April we will see a new Code of Practice introduced : simpler, clearer, more succinct and user friendly. But its introduction is not the panacea that we are sometimes led to believe it will be. It runs the risk of continuing to be, like the code it will replace, a toothless tiger because we can still not be sure that it will be consistently applied and that compliance will be adequately monitored and enforced. That’s the reality and to say so is not simply a way of beating those tasked with compliance over the head but yet another call for change and action.
If a criminal justice service is to deliver what it is needed then, as well as all the right policies, procedures, structures it needs to have the right culture, a culture that puts people first, a culture that recognises and addresses the needs of the most vulnerable (both victims and defendants). Only within such a culture can any policies and procedures hope to achieve their aims and ambitions.
And the culture needs to be looking forwards to see how it can embrace new and innovative approaches that are designed, and implemented, to help people through this maze of a service we have, an approach that sees criminal justice agencies increasingly look to developing joint approaches (particularly in the digital sphere) and a clear recognition that the better we engage with people, the more they feel informed, the more transparent we are then the more they will have confidence, the more the system will be seen to work well and the more we we deliver better outcomes.
In the coming few months we all have a part to play in informing the debate about how our criminal justice system can be brought back from the brink, how it can not only address the current problems it faces but how it can improve and evolve into a service that delivers what is needed. It needs to become a cause of celebration for us all, not least those who work within it who are often underrated and get little recognition for their efforts. The challenge is real, it is here and it is up to us all to rise to it.