Today (21st June 2022), the Victims’ Commissioner Dame Vera Baird QC has released her annual report, highlighting shortcomings with the upcoming Victims’ Bill and the need to transform the culture of police forces as well as justice agencies’ practices and treatment of victims of sexual violence.
Marking the end of her first term as Commissioner, Dame Vera Baird QC reflects on her achievements and the challenges still facing victims in the justice system.
The End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW) has long called for radical transformation of our broken justice system which is failing to deliver justice to survivors and is instead causing harm.
We welcome many of the Commissioner’s recommendations, including:
- Legislation to give victims protection over disproportionate requests for their personal information, including their digital data or third-party materials (counselling, school, medical, social services or other records).
- Free independent legal advice and representation for victims of sexual offences.
- A statutory system of protective privilege for the confidentiality of sexual assault victims’ therapy records in any criminal proceedings.
- Ensure the Victims’ Law transforms how victims are treated across the criminal justice system, ensuring they receive procedural justice, support and delivery of their guaranteed rights.
- Ensure the Victims’ Law extends victims’ rights to currently excluded groups and assess which victims of crime do not engage with the criminal justice system, as well as the barriers to justice and the experiences of those who do report.
- Put sustainable funding for all victims’ services on a statutory footing, including ring-fenced funding for specialist services led by and for Black, minoritised and migrant women and Deaf and disabled women.
EVAW welcomes the Victims’ Bill, which has the potential to positively impact on women and girls’ experiences with the criminal justice system. However we agree with the Victims’ Commissioner that this law must deliver much more to be a landmark piece of legislation, including by addressing the disempowering experiences victims of abuse have with the criminal justice system, introducing independent legal advice for rape survivors and safeguards to protect them from excessive police requests for their medical history, therapy notes and other personal data.
We have also called for inequalities in access to justice and specialist support for marginalised groups, including Black and minoritised women, migrant women, Deaf and disabled women and LGBT+ survivors to be addressed. We want to see proper assessments of which groups of women feel unable to engage with the criminal justice system at all, and why.
The Bill must also mean that life-saving support services, particularly those led by and for minoritised women, receive the long term funding they need to remain open and accessible for women who need them. Following 12 years of austerity policies, many have been forced to close with many more at risk unless sustainable funding models replace the current competitive commissioning frameworks which disadvantage smaller specialist services.
Last month, the CPS released new guidance for prosecutors – dramatically lowering the bar for when rape survivors’ private therapy notes can be accessed by prosecutors and used to ‘discredit’ them in court.
This will stop survivors from accessing vital therapeutic support while causing significant additional trauma to those already going through the courts. We’re pleased that the Victims’ Commissioner has lent her voice to calls to keep counselling confidential, as well as calling for legislation to give victims protection from disproportionate requests for their personal information, including data extracted from their mobile phone and other digital devices, and their school, medical, social services or other personal records.
These records have no relevance in determining whether or not a perpetrator has committed rape or assault. These practices constitute a grave form of institutional victim-blaming in a system that makes victims feel like the ones under investigation rather than the perpetrator.
Our calls were recently supported by the Information Commissioner John Edwards, who stated that collecting excessive amounts of personal information from victims of rape and serious sexual assault is a violation of their right to privacy and called for called for criminal justice agencies to immediately stop this practice or face action from the Information Commissioner’s Office.
Trust and confidence in policing
Women’s trust and confidence in policing has nosedived following the rape and murder of Sarah Everard by a serving officer and countless other police failings including misconduct relating to the murders of Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry. As noted in her report, polling carried out by YouGov on our behalf shows almost half of women have lost trust in the police following Sarah Everard’s murder and 76% of women (and 71% of all adults) think that policing culture has to change in order to better respond to violence against women and girls.
We’re pleased to see the Victims’ Commissioner call for radical change in the culture of policing, which has long been steeped in institutional racism and misogyny. Police responses to this issue have been inadequate and deeply harmful; entailing victim blaming, a misplaced focus on victims instead of perpetrators in rape investigations, and a refusal to acknowledge and address the systemic problems that give rise to these ongoing failings.
However for many of the most marginalised women, including Black, minoritised and migrant women, there was often little trust to begin with, and we call on the response to police failings regarding violence against women to centre the women who are disproportionately impacted due to inequality and discrimination on the basis of their race, migration status, disability or other overlapping characteristics.
Andrea Simon, Director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition and member of the Victims’ Commissioner’s advisory group, said:
“We welcome the Victim’s Commissioner’s calls to transform the justice system for all victims, including survivors of rape, sexual violence and other forms of violence against women and girls.
The government has acknowledged how badly rape survivors and victims of other forms of gender-based violence have been failed. This is a critical area where government must show it is committed to both preventing and tackling violence against women and girls, but it must also listen to victims and survivors, the expert women’s sector and the Victims’ Commissioner to ensure its actions are transformative.
The Victims’ Commissioner plays a crucial role in elevating the voices and rights of victims, and as a member of her advisory group I have seen Dame Vera in her first term highlight some of the great injustices inflicted on survivors of sexual violence, who face disproportionate court backlogs and delays and discriminatory treatment throughout the criminal justice process.
We trust that going forward violence against women and girls will continue to be a priority area of work for the office and that the Victim’s Commissioner will be afforded oversight of the way the Victim’s Code is being applied nationally for the benefit of all victims.”
Sinead Geoghegan, Communications Manager, firstname.lastname@example.org 07960 744 502