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Justice, where art thou? One of the problems in answering that question in this country is the very meaning of what people understand by the word justice, or hope that it means, writes Crawford Chalmers, pictured. He’s speaking about the charity Victim Support at the next quarterly meeting of the ASIS UK chapter in London on Thursday, September 11. He’ll be launching ‘business cards’ for security managers to hand out, to security and non-security staff alike who might want to use Victim Support, which as the cards say is a national charity for victims and witnesses of crime. The charity gives free, confidential help and support to more than one million victims of crime a year.

For anyone facing criminal charges, there has always been (and always will be) the paramount principle in law of respecting and protecting their rights to a fair trial.
For victims of crime however, justice as they experience it too often means disappointment and frustration. Depending on the seriousness of the crime, it can quite simply be life changing.

Only last year the Government set up a new board which will attempt to improve a criminal justice system that it hopes will help tackle a range of problems, not least of which are ‘unforgiveable delays’. The only surprise is how long it has taken for this to happen when half of all criminal court trials scheduled on a given day do not go ahead as planned, taking up valuable court time and contributing significantly to the frustrations of victims and their witnesses.

As one of many who works when time allows as a volunteer in the Victim Support Witness Service, I know only too well how such delays impact on the way criminal justice works for victims in our courts. In the early stages of my past life in CID, a renowned criminal barrister told me not to get dispirited following a crown court acquittal – ‘ It’s all in the game’ as he aptly put it.

From my perspective, the ‘game’ continues to be played out in courts up and down the country every day. It is a cornerstone of our justice system that a defence lawyer has to ensure the evidence is rigorously tested at all times , and if that means putting victims through the most challenging experience of their lives then so be it. The prize of winning the case is the only objective and the reality that many people forget is that the lawyers practise law, not justice.

Many millions of pounds are spent preparing cases for trial, and defending those charged with offences. Victims are not so lucky. The various services which support them rely mostly on volunteers and only around two per cent of the costs of our criminal justice system are spent directly on them. So why have delays become ‘unforgiveable’? Two of the reasons I submit are not historically focused on enough because they are considered essential to the rights of all defendants.

Firstly, whilst there are many who do plead guilty at the very first court date, those who decide to plead not guilty kick-start a system which gears up for a trial whether to be held before a magistrate or before a jury in the crown court. The problem is that in literally thousands of those ‘not guilty’ cases, the defendants change their plea to guilty on the date of the trial.

The result of this is that many millions of pounds are wasted in Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) costs, but what about the impact on victims? As I have seen all too often, they will be at court waiting to give evidence and preparing themselves mentally for what is often a nerve-wracking experience, only to be told they are not needed.

One reason for this is that defendants delay pleading guilty until the day of the trial hoping that victims and their witnesses will not show up, leading to a collapse of the case. In many cases these defendants are being funded by legal aid. In my view this amounts to nothing more than a public funded waiting game, and a straightforward abuse of the system. To put it even more bluntly, I suggest it qualifies as witness intimidation.

The average waiting time for crown court trials, from the time a decision is made to hold a trial to it actually beginning, is six months , though in the London area it is not unusual for a victim to wait a year or longer for a trial to be held. Secondly, and considered a right that can never be jeopardised, is the ‘sacred cow’ in our criminal justice system – the right to trial by jury. This cow means that a defendant can choose trial by jury over small thefts with real examples such as stealing food items worth a few pounds, stealing from a parking meter, or theft of an old mobile phone.

To make matters worse, two thirds of defendants who choose a crown court trial in cases which could be dealt with by magistrates (‘either way’ cases) finish up pleading guilty when they get to crown court. Why? In addition to hoping the victim or witness will not turn up, another answer may be found as far back as 20 years ago. Lord Runciman who chaired the 1994 Royal Commission on Criminal Justice warned then that one of the three main objectives for defendants opting for trial by jury was simply to put off the trial. There were a number of ‘personal’ reasons for this, one being to enable defendants to have part of their sentence counted while on remand in a softer prison regime, which includes being able to wear their own clothes!

The reality of all the delays is that victims may decide to give up on the trial ever taking place, and may no longer want to give their evidence. Can they be blamed for being unable to keep their lives on hold indefinitely? Does the longer the time gap between the crime and the trial make it possible that the victim’s evidence is likely to be regarded as less reliable? Could this be a gamble that some defendants and their representatives take?

With such a reality, it is obvious how difficult it can be to persuade victims to report crimes in the first place, and then to be willing to give evidence. Some light in the long dark tunnel for witnesses has been the abolition last year of committal hearings intended to speed up and improve efficiency. Pilot schemes have also begun in terms of an ‘Early Guilty Plea ‘ system . Amazingly it has taken until very recently for proposals to be put forward for a change in the law which would give greater protection in court for example for victims of rape and child abuse.

There is much to be done to enhance the rights of victims of crime, because after all “If we do not maintain justice, justice will not maintain us” (Francis Bacon 1561-1626).

About the writer: Crawford Chalmers is a committee member of ASIS UK, the charity liaison lead. He works as an unpaid volunteer for Victim Support. Visit www.victimsupport.org.uk.


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