An insight into what is happening in the courts during the Coronavirus pandemic, written by a Court Worker at Juno Women’s Aid.
It has been a strange time as a court worker. Things were running along and all of a sudden, it ground to a halt.
The budget cuts over the last few years had already slowed down justice for women significantly, but during lockdown, there was no idea of how and when this would be concluded for them.
The courts have been running for remand cases only and, as a result, many women have been waiting for several more months to have first hearings or their trial.
For women waiting on Crown court cases, this has been very difficult. They were already waiting for around two years between the incident and a conclusion. We are now looking for this to take three years if we are lucky. How can you move on with your life when this is hanging over you for this long? These are the most serious cases and they have the hardest time.
The Courts and COVID
We had our first domestic violence court on the 5th of August and we were able to observe proceedings via a video link into the court. This worked really well and had some benefits. We could contact women as the case was being heard much more easily. Usually, we would be in court and have to excuse ourselves to make calls. This would mean we could then miss some of the information. It meant we could be more flexible and responsive. I was able to contact the prosecutor (who was also on a video link) giving her updated information that was requested as the cases went along.
A benefit for me was also the ability to be more anonymous. The video link allowed me to block my camera and not be seen in court. The court can see that I am there but the defendant cannot see me. Sometimes it is hard to be in the presence of a defendant when you know that the court is only seeing the tip of the iceberg in terms of the woman’s experience.
I am concerned that due to the length of time cases are taking to get to court, restraining orders are not being granted. The court feels that there is no need as they have been no further incidents since. This misses the fact that in many of our cases there have been breaches of bail and further incidents, they just did not get to court. When women report to the Police it is often the last resort, a cry for help. When the system does not recognise the full extent of the abuse it can feel terrible for us both.
The justice system has already slowed down dramatically from when I first started this job nine years ago. This is because cases are being dealt with by means of a postal requisition. This is a letter asking the defendant to go to court. They are not bailed but released under investigation. This process can take up to a year for a first hearing to be booked leaving the woman without bail conditions to protect her. The lockdown has delayed these cases even further. Women have often moved on with their lives. They feel let down and put off from reporting again. This is dangerous and concerning for me as someone who can see that the criminal justice system has the power to change people’s lives if it is used in the right way and in a timely fashion.
I hope that the recognition of the danger that lockdown caused for so many women will start to change things. In the meantime, we will continue to work within the system to try and make it more comfortable for the women involved. To manage their expectations and safety plan for all eventualities.
We are now about to start working towards clearing the backlog that the lockdown has caused. The courts are allocating extra days for hearings and so we are going to be busy over the next few months. It will be good to be able to tell women that their case has finally made it to the start line and that their voice will be heard.
Working through this time has reinforced my belief in the strength and bravery of these women. I am inspired by how resourceful and imaginative they can be when faced with such difficult and potentially dangerous conditions. The women are my focus and will always be. They energise me to try to make this system better for them and the women that follow them. To make it feel easier and safer for women to reach out in times of need, report what has happened to them and know that they will get help, support and justice.
Juno’s freephone 24-hour Helpline is available 365 days a year. Call and speak to a female Helpline advisor who will listen non-judgmentally and guide you through the choices available to you. You can choose to remain anonymous and all calls are confidential. Only call when it is safe to do so. The Helpline is for women and young people experiencing abuse, friends, family and concerned professionals.