The Victims’ Bill: Women’s Aid comments
The Government published its Draft Victims’ Bill in May 2022 as part of the Conservative Party’s commitment to improving support for victims in the criminal justice system.
On 19th January 2023, the Government issued its response to the Justice Select Committee’s pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Victims’ Bill, which Women’s Aid responded to in a statement published here. In its response, the Government rejected many of the recommendations made by Women’s Aid and endorsed by the Justice Select Committee that would have made a real difference in the experiences of survivors of domestic abuse, which are set out below. This raises serious concerns about the effectiveness of the Bill in ensuring survivors of domestic abuse have a better experience of the criminal justice system and can access timely support from specialist domestic abuse services.
Background to the Victims’ Bill
The Conservative Party has committed to introducing a Victims’ Law at the last three General Elections. In late 2021, the Ministry of Justice published its proposals for this alongside a consultation, to which Women’s Aid submitted a response.
As part of our research, Women’s Aid spoke with survivors of domestic abuse to better understand their thoughts on the Government’s proposals for Women’s Aid to feedback to the Ministry of Justice. Our findings were stark: not a single survivor was aware of the existence of the Victims’ Code, which sets out their fundamental rights as victims and the standard of support they should receive.
The Government published their response to the consultation in May 2022, alongside a Draft Victims’ Bill. The Justice Select Committee, which is responsible for examining the work of the Ministry of Justice, responded to this by launching an inquiry to scrutinise the Bill (called ‘pre-legislative scrutiny’). Women’s Aid also fed into this process by submitting written evidence to the Committee, which published its pre-legislative scrutiny report in September 2022. This blog explores the recommendations made by the Justice Select Committee in their report on how the draft Bill can be improved to ensure it fulfils its aim of putting victims at the centre of the criminal justice system and ensuring all victims are able to access better support services, and how the Government has responded to these.
The Justice Select Committee’s pre-legislative scrutiny report
Call to increase funding
The Bill currently places a duty on key agencies, such as local authorities and health bodies, to work together when commissioning community-based services, but does not attach any funding to these services. The Committee therefore recommended strengthening this duty through multi-year funding, reflecting the calls Women’s Aid has repeatedly made alongside others in the violence against women and girls (VAWG) sector.
Community-based services – services delivered to survivors in the community as opposed to in refuges, including advocacy, counselling, and therapeutic support – are essential in supporting survivors of domestic abuse. In 2021-22, these services supported an estimated 131,094 women and 170,422 children in England. However, 43.2% of local domestic abuse services which responded to Women’s Aid’s Annual Survey in 2022 confirmed they were running community-based services without dedicated funding. It’s important the Victims’ Bill addresses this issue and ensures services which provide life-saving support to survivors, like Women’s Aid’s member services across the country, do not have to do so on a shoestring budget.
The Committee also noted the need to increase victims’ awareness of their rights through the Victims’ Code and to shift the burden of responsibility for claiming rights away from survivors and onto criminal justice agencies. This would require additional funding from the Ministry of Justice to expand the capacity of victim support services who already face unmanageable referral levels and caseloads. As part of this funding, the Committee also echoed calls made by Women’s Aid for the Government to put in place national multi-year ringfenced funding for specialist support services. This funding should include a separate pot for ‘by and for’ services, which are designed and delivered by and for people who are minoritised (including race, disability, sexual orientation, transgender identity, religion or age) and are rooted in the communities they serve.
In the report, the Committee issued several further recommendations to the Government which mirror those made by Women’s Aid. The Government has rejected most of these measures, including:
- Introducing a complete firewall for migrant victims and witnesses to better protect those with insecure immigration status. A firewall would mean that victims’ and witnesses’ data cannot be shared by the police with Immigration Enforcement, allowing those with insecure immigration status to report crimes safely.
- Not restricting entitlements provided under the Victims’ Code due to immigration status, so everyone can access justice.
- Strengthening the role of the Victims’ Commissioner and formalising relationships between the Commissioner, Police and Crime Commissioners, and the Inspectorates to allow for the escalation of concerns raised at a local level and to enforce their compliance with the Victims’ Code.
- Ensuring that the provision of victim support services is available to all victims, even those who don’t engage with the criminal justice system.
- Guaranteeing that measures to support victims set out in the Victims’ Bill and Code are not diminished by reforms to the Human Rights Act.
Women’s Aid and the Committee also highlighted the need to ensure victims are aware of their rights under the Victims’ Code, and for the collection of granular demographic data by criminal justice bodies on victims supported by the Code. The Government has largely accepted these recommendations, which Women’s Aid welcomes. However, there is a long way to go before this Bill can truly make a difference to the lives of survivors of domestic abuse.
Women’s Aid’s recommendations
In addition to the recommendations accepted by the Justice Select Committee, Women’s Aid is calling for further changes to strengthen the Victims’ Bill, including on the Victims’ Code, the way in which services are commissioned and on defining the role of advocates.
Women’s Aid is calling for all victims to be provided with the same point of contact throughout their journey in the criminal justice system to improve the service received. Building on the need to ensure victims are aware of their rights under the Victims’ Code, the accessibility of the Code must also be improved by considering the needs of Deaf and disabled survivors and by addressing language barriers. The improvement of data collection on victims supported by the Code is also imperative to monitor how well this is serving victims and to improve the accountability of criminal justice agencies in delivering the Code.
Commissioning of services
Further to the calls for multi-year funding for community-based services, Women’s Aid is recommending the creation of an oversight mechanism to monitor the commissioning of services led ‘by and for’ minoritised women, which face some of the greatest challenges to accessing vital funding. The duty to collaborate when commissioning community-based support services should also be expanded to encourage cross-boundary collaboration, particularly to support Black and minoritised women in accessing appropriate ‘by and for’ services as needed outside their local area.
Role of advocates
Women’s Aid welcomes the Committee’s recognition of our concerns about creating a statutory definition of Independent Domestic Violence Advocates (IDVAs), who work with victims of domestic abuse to understand their experiences and their risk of ongoing harm. Defining IDVAs risks creating a one-size-fits-all approach and could lead to the decommissioning of specialist advocacy and wraparound support that specialist services provide outside of the IDVA model. We are therefore cautioning against establishing a formal definition of an IDVA, and recommending that the Government hold discussions with specialist ‘by and for’ domestic abuse services as part of these deliberations.
Whilst Women’s Aid welcomes improvements to the Victims’ Code as a step towards criminal justice agencies taking a victim-centred approach – which includes a duty on the Crown Prosecution Service to meet victims in certain cases before a hearing takes place – we remain concerned that the draft Bill fails to make enough of a real difference for survivors of domestic abuse.
We are especially concerned by the proposal to create a statutory definition of an IDVA, as well as the lack of a statutory commitment to provide sustainable, multi-year funding for community-based services.
We will therefore continue to advocate for revisions to the Bill to address these issues and ensure that survivors of domestic abuse receive the best support possible in their journey out of abusive relationships as well as through the criminal justice system.
The Government has now responded to the Committee’s report, and the Victims’ Bill is currently expected to be introduced in the House of Commons by the Government in Spring 2023.