The coronavirus crisis and subsequent national lockdown is creating multiple challenges for the UK justice sector. It is also affecting victims and witnesses of crime, who are themselves often overlooked by the criminal justice system.
We consider the effects of the pandemic on the criminal justice system and explore how agencies might look to manage its impact on victims and witnesses of crime.
Criminal Justice victims: The unexpected casualties
The confidence crisis in the justice sector
There is already a problem with confidence in the justice system, particularly amongst victims and witnesses. The coronavirus outbreak has placed an already-stretched criminal justice system under increasing pressure. Victims are likely to feel the impact of an overstretched police force, changes to charging by the Crown Prosecution Service and the closing down of courts. New jury trials and the majority of magistrates’ hearings have been postponed to stem the spread of the pandemic.
COVID-19 is making that problem worse because there is reduced access to justice, and a growing backlog of cases, which will make it even harder to serve victims. Victims will need to wait even longer to see justice being delivered, prolonging their trauma and increasing attrition rates; with implications for the legitimacy of the justice system. Victims of crime risk further losing confidence in the criminal justice system as a result of COVID-19.
A backlog of victims, with more complex needs
COVID-19 is creating a backlog of victims, who are experiencing higher levels of trauma. The impact of isolation has heightened the risks that vulnerable victims are exposed to, particularly domestic abuse victims. While some reported crimes have decreased, across the globe, domestic abuse calls have increased by a quarter in the week following lockdown. In the UK, calls to a national helpline have increased by half after three weeks of lockdown.
In one of the gravest unintended consequences of the coronavirus lockdown, those in abusive relationships find themselves trapped at home and exposed to their abusers for longer periods of time. This makes it very difficult for them to seek help and find safe spaces. London Victims’ Commissioner Claire Waxman has acknowledged this, and issued advice for victims here.
Despite this rise in domestic abuse, early signs are that the overall volume of new referrals into victim support services from the police is decreasing. This suggests that victims may not be coming forward to report crimes due to the constraints of social distancing and lockdown, which may lead to another wave of victims requiring support when lockdown measures are relaxed.
The response from the justice sector
Given this backdrop, the justice sector cannot return to BAU. It needs to change by:
1. Clearly understanding the new landscape, victim need and capacity
Organisations will need to adapt their provision, but the first step is to understand the new landscape. Modelling the flow of demand through the criminal justice system will identify the scale of the backlogs at various points in the system, the impact across it, and on victims of crime. This provides insights to police leaders, prosecutors, court officials, victim services and police and crime commissioners, and local criminal justice boards, into how COVID-19 is affecting performance including the sustainability of victim care.
2. Having a range of offers to address the different needs of victims in the most efficient manner, and triage most appropriately
Traditional access and engagement channels for victims are being increasingly restricted. This creates the need to provide new, emergency services and to tailor access channels to the new environment that victims find themselves in.
We understand the need for connection, collective resilience and support through this period, when people can feel isolated, disconnected and alone. There are simple ways that organisations can redesign their ways of working and engagement methods to ensure genuine connection and victim care. It needs to start with effective leadership and a clear strategy aimed at addressing victims’ needs.
3. Working flexibly across partnerships to make it easy for victims to engage with the justice system
In order to support victims both to cope and recover and to engage with the criminal justice systems effectively, agencies and providers are going to need to find new, more flexible ways of working. Commissioners and service providers are going to need to rethink how best to work together to reach, triage and support victims of crime through this crisis, and will need to define new success measures, to help support victims in a more virtualised world.
This must be driven by the objective of making the experience easier for victims of crime; and will involve smoothing the hand-offs between organisations, working better in partnership and providing extra care to make sure victims don’t fall between the cracks in their justice journey. If the system can manage this, it can help rebuild confidence at a crucial time for victims.
The coronavirus pandemic will fundamentally change the way many organisations operate for the foreseeable future. As governments around the world grapple with imposed guidelines the justice sector, and victim services more specifically, must think tactically in the short term and strategically beyond the crisis, to embrace new ways of working that are flexible and work across the system to make the victim journey easier.
Crest Advisory and Gate One are both working to support organisations through the crisis by helping them to understand the impact of the public health emergency and advising on long-term recovery. To find out more, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.