Scores of children and vulnerable people are being denied access to justice in England and Wales due to a shortage of specialist support, the victims’ commissioner has warned.
Baroness Newlove said up to 250 witnesses a year do not get the help they need from trained intermediaries to give evidence to police and courts.
She said the “worrying” shortage needs “addressing urgently”.
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said more specialists were being recruited.
Since 2008, police have been able to use registered intermediaries (RIs) to ensure children and adults with communication difficulties are able to give coherent and accurate evidence during police interviews and criminal proceedings.
There are currently 135 active RIs in England and Wales.
A registered intermediary’s tasks include:
- assessing the communication needs of a victim or witness
- preparing questions that can be put to the witness during cross-examination
- accompanying the witness when they give evidence in court
- alerting the court to miscommunications that could affect the reliability of their evidence
Nicola Lewis works as an RI in London . She told the BBC: “There are simply not enough of us – I’m booked until the end of February and can’t take on any more cases.
“Some forces don’t even request an RI because they know they can’t get one.”
The report produced by the victims’ commissioner praised the work of RIs as “invaluable” but found “systemic failure” in the way the service was managed.
The review raised concerns over a four-week delay in matching RIs to witnesses, which was problematic in cases involving children with shorter memory spans.
It also noted that, despite a four-fold increase in requests, there had not been a similar increase in recruitment levels, and on average, 20 requests for RIs every month were not met.
The report also said there were “wide variations” in access across the country, with, for example, five times as many requests for RIs in Cumbria compared with London.
Furthermore, some RIs told the review they refused to accept work from the Metropolitan Police due to problems of late payment, with one respondent reporting they had to wait a year.
The Met said they would be investigating further.
Ms Lewis said the problem of delayed payments almost led her to quit last year, adding that many colleagues felt “incredibly isolated and don’t have a voice”.
The Victims’ Commissioner made a number of recommendations including:
- establishing a centralised national service for the provision of RIs
- appointing a national lead to represent the interests of RIs
- ensuring that recruitment was in line with demand forecasts
Baroness Newlove said: “My review finds that RIs are dedicated professionals, deeply committed to their work.”
“Yet I don’t sense they’re receiving the backup they need to provide the best possible service to victims.”
She added: “When you deprive victims of the support of a RI, you rob them of the opportunity to give their best evidence.”
An MoJ spokesman said it had doubled the size of the RI scheme, with more than 6,500 witnesses last year receiving support and more than 90% of requests met.
“We are recruiting more RIs, improving the training available to them, and working closely with police and prosecutors to make sure witnesses are matched to an RI as swiftly as possible,” the spokesman added.