Helen Pearson was stabbed eight times in a churchyard near her home in Exeter in 2013 following a campaign of intimidation, harassment and vandalism by her neighbour Joe Willis. She survived –  but the Independent Police Complaints Commission later found that Devon and Cornwall Police had missed multiple opportunities to protect her.

Dr Natalie Byrom

Dr Natalie Byrom

Source: Michael Cross

In the five years before the attack, Helen made more than 125 complaints to the police. Speaking later about her experience, Helen said: 'Every time I reported an incident I got a new reference number and spoke to a different officer. The reports were never looked at as a whole, which meant the police weren’t getting the bigger picture.'

Helen’s case is just one example provided to us by victims groups of how the criminal justice system’s approach to collecting and sharing data undermines its ability to secure public safety. Victims of crimes such as stalking and domestic abuse are particularly poorly served by the status quo. By focusing on recording information about crime type, current systems are failing to capture, predict and prevent offending behaviour - with disastrous results.

More broadly, the absence of a consistent approach to recording similar basic information by the key criminal justice agencies makes it impossible to adequately support victims through the process, provide them with timely information or design effective services. Police forces record offences, the Crown Prosecution Service counts defendants, the courts service counts cases. But no one is counting the people who rely on the justice system for protection. 

The Victims Bill is due to return to parliament shortly. It promises to: 'put victims' interests at the heart of the justice system'. Yet our work with victims groups leads us to question how the legislation can possibly succeed in this goal, when we have so little relevant, reliable information about who victims are or what happens to them in the system.

Basic and critical gaps include the number of victims in the criminal justice system, and demographic information, such as age and ethnicity. Data varies significantly by crime type too. For example, victims groups have told us that limited information is available about child victims of domestic abuse. 

The problems we have identified with victims' data are just one manifestation of deep and systemic issues that pervade our wider justice system, reaching across the civil and family courts. The failure to take into account the views, priorities and experience of the people who need the justice system most is not an accident – it has been and continues to be designed into our systems.

Unlike other areas of social policy such as health and education, we have systematically failed to prioritise the collection of data to help us understand who is in the justice system, or what happens to them as they try to navigate it. Even the basic information needed to manage the system is lacking. How many judges sat during Covid? Which cases are in the backlog? How many people are unrepresented in our civil courts? Which is more effective at clearing backlogs - Nightingale courts or remote hearings? We simply do not know the answers to any of these questions.

Without this data we are unable to build evidence to understand what works or resource the system effectively. It is the equivalent of trying to run a hospital without knowing what conditions your patients are suffering from, how many operating theatres you have, or whether your patients survive their treatment.

By exposing data gaps across the justice system and recommending practical solutions to address them, Justice Lab is advocating for a justice system based on policies and processes that work. It’s why I helped develop a data strategy for HM Courts & Tribunals Service and it’s why we have worked with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism to uncover the human impact of failing anti-social behaviour orders, and measures designed to prevent Covid- elated evictions in our housing courts.

But for change to be properly realised, we need to transform the way those in charge of the justice system – ministers, the judiciary and all the agencies that work in it - value data and evidence too.

Among the senior judiciary, there are powerful advocates for change. The current president of the Family Division, Sir Andrew MacFarlane has stated that: 'the lack of consistent data on the operation of the family justice system means that it is hard to conduct any evidence based assessments of what we do. I am convinced that better data collection could be transformational in terms of understanding the decisions that are being made, seeing patterns and problems, and ultimately achieving better outcomes.'

The appetite from ministers is less clear. The current lord chancellor, Dominic Raab, has described himself as a 'data fiend' but progress to implement existing commitments on data collection as part of the ongoing programme of court reform has been slow. In the absence of robust data and evidence, important decisions are made in the dark, based on political instinct, anecdote and impression.

A justice system which operates in this way is a system doomed to failure. It cannot hear the voices of those who need it, it continues to invest in approaches that do not work, and it suffers from weakened public confidence and trust as a result.

By putting data and evidence first, we can start to build a justice system that is accessible, accountable and works for everyone in society. Only when we do this will the justice system fulfil its fundamental promise to victims of crime like Helen Pearson - that the system will listen to them and keep them safe.


Dr Natalie Byrom is director of research at the Legal Education Foundation and director of Justice Lab