Dernière actu pour les fans : Victims are getting lost in the justice system — IDs could help

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The writer sits on the Civil Justice Council and the UK Ministry of Justice’s senior data governance panel

In 2013, Helen Pearson was repeatedly stabbed in a church yard after being given a new reference number for each of the 125 previous reports she had made against her stalker. The failure to link these reports meant that the police had missed vital opportunities to prevent her being attacked.

Had Pearson been given a unique ID number, against which all her interactions with the police were recorded, officers would have been able to spot the escalating pattern of harassment and accurately assess the risk posed by the stalker — giving them the chance to intervene before she was assaulted.

In some sectors of government, such as education and social care, IDs are increasingly seen as a crucial way to better services. In the justice system, however, the idea of unique IDs for victims is still just an idea.

In 2023, I worked with victims’ groups to try to understand how issues with data were affecting our ability to help victims of crime. The findings were alarming — the groups reported that, at present, data on victims of crime is inconsistently collected and often not linked — within or across the agencies of the criminal justice system.

The failure to introduce measures to improve the way that data about victims is collected and shared has had serious consequences — particularly for those who are subject to offences characterised by patterns of repeat behaviour, such as domestic violence, stalking and antisocial behaviour.

The draft Victims and Prisoners bill, currently making its way through the House of Lords, promises to: “put victims at the heart of the criminal justice system”. It is difficult to see how it will achieve this aim, when existing data systems, which will not be reformed under the draft legislation, are set up to render victims’ true pictures and history invisible. 

Unique IDs for victims could also support the creation of new digital services, keeping victims updated on the progress of their case and tackling one of the key causes of the dissatisfaction they have with the criminal justice process. Such a system would also create the infrastructure for monitoring compliance with the Victims Code, which sets out what victims are owed, in real time. Recording compliance with the code and linking it to the relevant victim ID would mean that those in charge could routinely monitor disparities in the experience of victims of different types of crime, or from different backgrounds — and act to address them.

In terms of improving the design of services and policy, better demographic data on victims of crime, linked to the reasons why they withdraw from prosecutions, could help to create effective support services — reducing victim withdrawals and addressing one of the key drivers of cost across the criminal justice system. 

The failure to address existing issues with data is a problem of vision and ambition, not technical feasibility. Unique identifiers for both victims and defendants are already in use by countries such as Finland — which frequently appears near the top of international comparison indices measuring the quality of justice systems in different countries.

Of course, there are potential downsides to introducing IDs, including the risk that detailed information will be shared inappropriately, or used for purposes other than the improvement of services. These could be managed by giving the victims commissioner for England and Wales a role in determining permitted uses of data associated with victim IDs.

Creating robust data governance is vital to maintaining public trust, and making changes will require investment. But in a context where the criminal justice system is at breaking point, and victim trust and confidence is low, politicians must weigh the cost of allowing the status quo to persist, against that of taking action. 

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