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6 October 2023

William Maddison, External Affairs Executive at the British Retail Consortium, explores how magistrates can play a vital role in highlighting the retail crime victim's experience.

With extensive media coverage and increasing attention in Westminster, shoplifting and violence against retail workers have emerged as central political issues in the run up to the next general election.

These are, however, topics that are rife with misunderstandings, incorrect assumptions, and a tendency to be underestimated in their severity.

The British Retail Consortium’s annual crime survey

The British Retail Consortium’s (BRC) annual crime survey is an attempt to bring clarity to the issue. The survey has been running for over 30 years, with the 2023 edition sampling businesses representing around three million workers and £190 billion in turnover. Simply put, it is the most complete picture we currently have of measuring the current state of retail crime.

Despite the recent explosion in focus, our 2023 crime survey—which includes data up until March 2022 —reveals that the increase in retail crime began with the onset of the pandemic, with levels of violence and abuse sitting at roughly 200 percent above pre-pandemic levels. Anecdotal evidence and recent interventions from some of the most high-profile retail chief executives in the country suggest that this trend has since increased further.

More recent BRC research on theft has shown that incidents of shoplifting in ten of the largest cities in the UK increased by an average of 27 percent over the last year. A common misconception about these crimes is the notion that such offences are victimless. However, with shoplifting being one of the most common flashpoints for violence against shopworkers, the increase has created an environment of fear for many of our frontline retail workers.

At the BRC, we frequently encounter criminal incidents that are too sensitive for the public domain and that often leave victims with lasting mental and physical scars. In numerous cases, dangerous weapons like machetes have been involved, and in one extreme instance, a medieval mace was used.

It is not just the extreme cases that carry lasting implications. For example, we recently heard from an older retail worker who was knocked over during what some might label a ‘less severe’ shoplifting incident; years later, she continues to face lingering health issues. Despite escalating concerns, the lack of response from the police and government has perpetuated a sense of vulnerability, leaving many retail workers feeling unsafe and unprotected in their own workplaces.

Fortunately, people are starting to listen.

What magistrates can do?

The recent spotlight on this issue has made stakeholders across the UK realise the urgent need for intervention. Much of the change needs to occur before it reaches you as magistrates, but you can play a vital role in highlighting the victim’s experience.

As magistrates, you know better than most that this is not always easy to accurately do. Victim impact statements are not always completed and, even when they are, they may not capture the full breadth of the trauma experienced. Moreover, in the confines of the courtroom statistics and legal processes can sometimes overshadow the very real, human consequences of retail crime. However, it is essential that we bridge this gap between the objective data and the subjective experience of the victims.

This is not just about legalities, but about real people, their lives, and the long-term implications of the crimes committed against them. By considering victim impact, you humanise the crime and, when communicated in court, can help emphasise to the perpetrators the consequences of their actions. It paints a more comprehensive picture of the incident than a police report or, indeed, the numbers in our crime survey ever could.

When a victim’s experience is made central to your considerations as magistrates, it sends a strong message: the legal system prioritises the human, every individual’s experience is valid, and they are not alone in their fight for justice. You are not just upholding justice, but you are also playing a crucial role in creating a safer, more compassionate society.