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Victim advocates play "invaluable" role in justice system - new research

21 May 2024
New report from the Victims' Commissioner, published today (14 March), spotlights the crucial role victim advocates play in supporting victims through the criminal justice process.
  • "I'd be dead without this service": advocates praised in extensive new first-hand testimony. 
  • “Invaluable” advocates keep victims engaged in the criminal justice system for longer amid long waits for justice, says Victims’ Commissioner.
  • Report highlights challenges facing the sector, including high caseloads exacerbated by Crown Court backlog.

The report finds advocates help victims stay informed, engaged, and protected as they navigate the criminal justice system. This comes as growing numbers of victims withdraw amid record-high backlogs in the Crown Court and long waits for justice.

Mapping the current provision of victim advocacy in England and Wales, the report features powerful first-hand victim testimony from those who received advocacy support and reflections from advocates working in the criminal justice system. The Victims’ Commissioner proposes 16 recommendations for commissioners and government to take forward.

In the research, victims highlighted the importance of advocacy in several areas:

  • Improved engagement with the criminal justice system: advocates help victims understand their rights and options, and ensure they are kept informed throughout the process.
  • Emotional and practical support: advocates provide a safe space for victims to discuss their experiences and offer practical assistance with tasks, such as completing forms or applying for compensation.
  • Holding agencies accountable: advocates can challenge decisions made by the police, CPS and other agencies, and ensure victims are treated fairly and in a timely manner.
  • Coping and recovering: advocates help victims move on from victimisation by providing ongoing emotional support, signposting to other specialist services, and empowering victims to recover.

Describing their advocate, one victim said: “She’s checked in on me via calls and text. She’s supported me through the darkest of times. It’s 5 long years and still awaiting trial date and she’s been my backbone. Without her support, I probably would have dropped the case!”

One advocate, reflecting on their role, said: “It’s making sure that the victims have got the language and empowering them to articulate themselves to ensure that services give them the response they deserve and that they’re entitled to; that the law says they’re entitled to.”

In particular, victims highlighted the importance of having an advocate act as a liaison with statutory services, challenging the police around charging and outcome decisions. Some suggested the police appeared to take their report more seriously once their advocate became involved, while others found their advocate’s support invaluable to cope with a stressful and often daunting process.

Reflecting on the report, the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales, Baroness Newlove, said: “We know navigating the criminal justice system can be challenging for victims, especially for those who have experienced high levels of trauma. Some even find the process itself retraumatising, feeling stranded and alone in what can sometimes be perceived as an uncaring and complex system. This is where victim advocates step in. Advocates support victim engagement by providing them with essential practical advice and emotional support at a time when they are attempting to negotiate the justice system and recover from their ordeal.”

However, the report also identifies significant challenges facing the advocacy sector, including the commissioning of services, high caseloads, staff retention and a lack of formal role recognition within the criminal justice system.

The report identifies several limitations in the current funding landscape for victim advocacy services, including competitive tendering processes and short-term funding cycles. This makes it difficult for services to plan for the long term and invest in staff training and development. Despite delivering positive outcomes, specialised 'by and for' services face unique funding challenges and disadvantageous tendering processes, limiting access for minoritised communities.

High caseloads are also impacting the quality of service. Many advocates carry excessive caseloads, increasing the risk of burnout and reducing the amount of time they can dedicate to each victim. The report found that 43% of IDVAs exceed what some organisations consider to be an excessive level, with some advocates reporting individual caseloads of up to 150 at any one time. Many highlighted the impact the pandemic and ongoing delays in the justice system had on increasing caseloads.

A lack of formal recognition within the criminal justice system can also result in some advocates being barred from accompanying victims into courtrooms, causing unnecessary distress.

To strengthen victim advocacy and guarantee access for all, the report recommends:

  • Enhanced and sustainable funding for advocacy services.
  • A national standard for training and accreditation of advocates.
  • Formal limits on advocate caseloads.
  • Greater recognition of the role of advocates within the criminal justice system.

Further commenting on the report, Baroness Newlove, said“This report highlights the critical role that advocates play in supporting victims of crime. This is so important at a time when rates of victim withdrawal are at a near-all-time high and record number of cases awaiting court. Despite this, it is clear that the sector is facing significant challenges. It is crucial that we grip these challenges and ensure that victims have access to the high-quality advocacy services they deserve.”

Contact Information

Thomas Cracknell
Head of Communications
Victims' Commissioner for England and Wales
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Notes to editors

  • The report is called Going Above and Beyond: Mapping the Provision and Impact of Victim Advocacy in the Criminal Justice System and is set to be published on Thursday 14 March on the Victims’ Commissioner’s website.
  • Research has shown that rape victims who received specialist advocacy-based support were 49% less likely to withdraw from the criminal justice process than unsupported victims.
    • High victim withdrawal rates: 28% of cases were closed because the victim did not support police action at the end of September 2023. In cases of rape, 61% of police investigations closed and 21% of prosecutions stopped, due to victim withdrawal.
    • Record number of cases outstanding at court: there were 66,547 cases outstanding at the Crown Court at the end of September 2023.
  • More about Victim Advocates:
    • Victim advocates are trained professionals who provide specialist support, assistance, and advocacy to certain victims navigating the criminal justice system. Victim advocates empower victims to navigate complex legal processes, provide emotional support, and ensure victims’ voices are heard in the criminal justice system.
    • Independent Domestic Violence Advisers (IDVAs), Independent Sexual Violence Advisers (ISVAs) or Independent Victim Advocates (IVAs) are the most common types of advocates. There are many other advocate roles in operation in England and Wales, including Children and Young People Advocates, Stalking Advocates, and Modern Slavery Advocates.
    • Independent Domestic Violence Advisors (IDVAs) were the first advocacy role introduced in England and Wales and are the most prevalent advocacy role today.
    • Often independent from the statutory sector, advocates’ independence from agencies such as the police is thought to be a significant factor in encouraging victim engagement and providing opportunities to challenge other agencies on behalf of victims.

Further quotes from research: All quotes have been anonymised. The Victims’ Commissioner is unable to facilitate interviews with any of the victims or advocates who took part in the research. (Page numbers included for reference.)

Impact of victim advocates:

  • “If they hadn’t helped me, I wouldn’t be here anymore.” (Victim respondent, p. 17)
  • “My Advocate went above and beyond helping me through getting to court. Helped push for me to have counselling when [the case charging decision] was refused by the CPS as I tried to take my own life because the Police failed.” (Victim respondent, p. 17)
  • “I had 2 IDVAs. Both were instrumental in enabling me to rebuild my life after domestic abuse, take care of my children and navigate the legal system. They provided consistent, objective advice and guidance which meant I could make informed decisions about how to move forward.” (Victim respondent, p. 18)
  • “[My advocate] has helped me understand things on the police side of things and has asked for special measures if it goes to court. [My advocate] has also said she will support me in court.” (Victim respondent, p. 18)

Value and role of victim advocates:

  • “A lot of it is giving victims a language…understanding the system so that when you are ringing the police, you know exactly what you need to say, for them to understand the intricacies of what’s going on for them, to understand stalking…and quite a lot of them said that we’ve helped to build resilience in them. So actually, next time, they might not need to ring us because they know how it all works and they know what they need to do.” (Advocate respondent, p. 18)
  • “Limiting the number of times they have to tell their story…this can be extremely re-traumatising the more a survivor has to do this, once is bad enough. Being a single point of contact and advocating on a client's behalf can aid massively with coping.” (Advocate respondent, p. 19)

Benefits of specialist ‘by and for’ services:

  • “[...]also because we understand their culture…I think they know…we’ll understand where they’re coming from and what support they will need.” (Advocacy provider respondent, p. 28)
  • “Because [my advocate] has gone through similar to me. I don’t even need to speak and it’s like she can read me. No one else can.” (Victim respondent, p. 28)

High caseloads:

  • “[I have a] very high caseload for an ISVA due to the increasing demand on the service. Too many court cases are being delayed or a charging decision is taking a while therefore our caseloads are unusually high.” (Advocate respondent, p. 41)
  • “30 really should be an absolute maximum for a full-time staff member…anything over 30 can be unsafe practice, as you don't have enough time to dedicate to your clients and this is when things can be missed. With the work we do and the risks to our clients' safety, we really need to ensure that we have an appropriate and manageable caseload.” (Advocate respondent, p. 42)