Victims’ commissioner quits, launching scathing attack on government

Victims’ commissioner quits, launching scathing attack on government

In letter to justice secretary, Dame Vera Baird says ‘criminal justice system is in chaos’ and victims’ interests not a priority

Dame Vera Baird

The victims’ commissioner for England and Wales has announced she is quitting the role as she launched a scathing parting attack on the government’s commitment to those she represents.

Dame Vera Baird KC said she would not stay in post beyond her current term of 30 September, accusing the government of downgrading victims’ interests, reducing her access to ministers and failing to provide clarity regarding her reappointment.

She said she had not met the former lord chancellor, Dominic Raab, who stood down earlier this month, since January, a lack of engagement that reflected poorly on the Ministry of Justice’s priorities.

Dame Vera Baird to end term as Victims’ Commissioner at the end of September.

Dame Vera Baird has written to the Justice Secretary to inform him that she is not seeking a further extension of her term. Her contract will end on Friday 30 September 2022.

— Victims’ Commissioner for England & Wales (@VictimsComm) September 23, 2022

In a resignation letter to his replacement, Brandon Lewis, Baird also criticised the state of the criminal justice system and Raab’s plans for a British bill of rights to replace the Human Rights Act, which she said “so severely threatens victims’ human rights that it undermines what little progress the victims’ bill is set to bring. I am told the bill of rights is set to return in some form and that its withdrawal was only temporary.

“Further, little has been done to effectively tackle the enormous and catastrophic backlog of cases, particularly in the crown court where the most serious crimes are tried. This has exposed victims of these crimes to intolerable delay, anguish and uncertainty. It is no exaggeration to say that the criminal justice system is in chaos.

“This downgrading of victims’ interests in the government’s priorities, along with the sidelining of the victims’ commissioner’s office and the curious recruitment process make clear to me that there is nothing to be gained for victims by my staying in post beyond the current extension.”

Baird’s first three-year term was due to end in June. Instead of being reappointed like her predecessor, she was told by Raab the post would be open to competition but at the same time encouraged her to apply, she wrote. Her tenure was twice extended in a process that Baird said led to uncertainty for her already disrupted and destabilised office, describing the latest request for her to reapply as seemingly “a ploy to keep me in place as a nominal post-holder in the short-term than a genuine invitation”.

Baird has been particularly vocal about violence against women, an issue that came under renewed focus last year after the murder of Sarah Everard by a serving Metropolitan police officer. She said police forces should be compelled to deal with violence against women and girls with the same level of resources, expertise and urgency as terrorism or organised crime.

Baird claimed rape had effectively been decriminalised as a result of a collapse in prosecutions and accused the director of public prosecutions for England and Wales, Max Hill, of presiding over a “catastrophic” period in the history of the Crown Prosecution Service, with rape convictions having hit a historic low.

Baird’s criticism of Raab for not meeting with her echoes complaints by the leaders of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) that he had refused to meet them since its members began industrial action in April. By contrast, Lewis met the CBA on Tuesday, after the Queen’s mourning period ended.

When barristers this month escalated their action over legal aid fees to an indefinite walkout this month, Baird described it as “the latest symptom of a criminal justice system that is severely and recklessly underfunded”.