A reported increase in lockdown domestic abuse cases was a key subject of questioning at a Justice Committee evidence session with the Director of Public Prosecutions and head of the Crown Prosecution Service, Max Hill QC, on Thursday May 21.
The Victims’ Commissioner, Dame Vera Baird, told MPs on April 15 that the campaigning organisation Counting Dead Women had recorded 16 domestic abuse killings in the previous three weeks alone:
“We usually say there are two a week”, Dame Vera said; “that looks to me like five a week. That is the size of this crisis”.
Alongside these reported deaths, the charity Refuge said there had been a 150% rise in visits to its National Domestic Abuse helpline website in the early days of the lockdown. Requests for direct help, through calls or online requests to the helpline, Refuge added, had increased by 25% since the restrictions on peoples’ movements were announced.
The Committee also questioned Max Hill on how domestic abuse is - and will be - dealt with during the pandemic by the police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). The CPS has prioritised prosecuting cases of domestic abuse, serious sexual offences and abuse of children. But the pandemic has lengthened the already large backlog of cases of all sorts that come to court. This is caused by the necessity of social distancing and other Covid-19 related problems over the attendance of victims, defendants, lawyers and others.
The Director of Public Prosecutions was also asked about the apparent confusion over cases specifically brought under the Coronavirus Act (2020). On May 15 the CPS announced that all 44 cases brought under the Act, almost all by the police, had been wrongly charged and would be dropped. This was mainly because the Act was aimed at controlling people who may be infectious - and none of those charged was.
Clarifying this issue, Mr Hill said:
"Our review showed that under the Covid regulations, in April, there were 187 cases charged and brought to court. Of those 187, the review showed that all but 12 were correctly charged; 175 were lawfully charged by the police under the regulations. Of the 12 that were incorrectly charged, seven were discontinued in court on the day. The defect was noted in the morning in court, and those cases were discontinued. That means there were five that had gone through the system under the regulations, actually with guilty pleas."
Rob questioned Mr Hill on the effectiveness of virtual hearings in magistrates courts, asking:
"How effective do you think virtual hearings have proved generally... and, particularly, do you think the technology has advanced sufficiently? My previous experience with technology in the magistrates court is that it was not always the best. Prosecutors sometimes had to hand their laptop up to me on the Bench so I could see a piece of evidence. Do you think you have made the step change that is necessary?
Referring to the technology used for virtual hearings, Mr Hill said:
"It has gone through an unprecedented step change over the course of the last two months. There is a technology-enabled justice silver group that leads work right across the criminal justice system to try to ensure the best use of technology by all agencies. That has been given an injection of pace by the circumstances we are under."
Focussing on the youth court, Rob asked Mr Hill:
"We know there is meant to be a different philosophy, that there is meant to be greater engagement and that it is very important that young people understand the proceedings. There are reports coming out about that all the time, suggesting that we still have a long way to go. How much progress do you think you are making in ensuring that you have prosecutors who have the right training, the right experience and the right personal skills to make sure that young people appearing in the youth court are treated appropriately, given, as you said, that many of them are very vulnerable?"
Mr Hill assured the committee that the CPS "have very experienced and dedicated prosecutors who appear in the youth courts, and I have absolutely no doubt that they do a very good job."
This Justice Select Committee session can be watched here.