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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

Many victims and witnesses lacked confidence in the justice system even before the coronavirus outbreak. The crisis 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.

Reduced access to justice and a growing backlog of cases is making it even harder to serve victims. Many will need to wait 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 losing further 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 increased by a quarter in the week following lockdown. In the UK, calls to a national helpline increased by half after three weeks of lockdown.

UN Women COVID-19 violence against women and girls

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, recently shared some advice for victims of crime.

Despite this rise in domestic abuse, early signs show the overall volume of new referrals into victim support services from the police are 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

Against this backdrop, it’s not a case of the justice sector simply returning to business as usual. Instead, it needs to make the following changes.

Clearly understanding the new language, 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 backlog at various points in the system, the impact across it, and on the victims of crime. This provides insights to police leaders, prosecutors, court officials, victim services and police and crime commissioners, and local criminal justice boards, to allow them to understand performance during COVID-19 and the sustainability of their victim care.

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 currently 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.

Working flexibly across partnerships to make it easy for victims to engage with the justice system

Flexible ways of working are needed to effectively engage victims with the criminal justice system, while supporting their recovery. Commissioners and service providers must rethink how to triage and support victims of crime together, and define new success measures to support victims in this virtual world.

This must be driven by making the experience easier for victims of crime. By working together with a smooth transition between organisations, the system can ensure victims don’t fall between the cracks in their justice journey. This can help rebuild confidence at a crucial time for victims.

A new dawn

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.

Andy O'Neill
Sarah Kincaid
Callyane Desroches