Victims: at the heart of the criminal justice system?

Blog post
Related Themes: Blogs, Justice

Victims: at the heart of the criminal justice system?

This week I attended the Northamptonshire Victim’s Voice Conference, organised by Voice the new integrated victims and witnesses service for Northamptonshire. While there have long been programmes supporting victims of crime, I was impressed by the way this integrated service is able to look at services in the round and focus resources on the most pressing local gaps.

For example, there is to be a new service to support children and young people, educating them about the risks of crime, as well as providing therapy, emotional support and advocacy. Programmes have been introduced to support victims of road accidents, to promote restorative justice and to support victims who are vulnerable, such as those who have mental health problems. The fact that the service can take such a holistic view of provision seems to me to be vindication of the decision to give Police and Crime Commissioners the responsibility for commissioning victim and witness services across their areas. At last there is someone responsible for ensuring that good quality services are on offer to victims locally, just as chief constables have long been responsible for ensuring an area is adequately policed.

There has been progress in recent years in getting a better deal for the victims of crime. Since the 1990s when the first Victim’s Charter was introduced under John Major’s government, we have seen the development of a range of new entitlements for victims, now set out in the Victim’s Code. There has been a real push by the police to keep victims up to date on the progress of their case and victims do now get greater consideration in court, such as through the facility for special measures for vulnerable victims (such as speaking from behind a screen) and the ability to have a personal statement read out. This progress is reflected in the figures on victim satisfaction, below, which show that those feeling very satisfied’ has gone up and those feeling dissatisfied’ has gone down.

Source: Crime Survey for England and Wales, Office for National Statistics

Nonetheless, we still talk about victim’s services’ as if they are an add on’ to a system that is set up to do something else. Of course ensuring victims are properly treated is just one objective of our criminal justice institutions. They are also there to ensure justice is done, which can very often mean victims do not get the outcome they want. But securing justice for those accused of a crime should never mean that victims are treated as an after-thought.

The plethora of recent scandals around sexual crime shows how far we still have to go. Only 15% of those who are sexually assaulted report what has happened to them to the police. Think about that for a moment. 85% of victims of sexual crime do not report those crimes to the police and therefore do not receive the protection of the law. According to the Crime Survey for England and Wales one of the main reasons for this low level of reporting is that victims do not have confidence that their cases will be taken seriously. For example, according to the report into the crimes of Jimmy Saville only six people came forward to report his crimes to the police while he was still alive. By contrast, after his death and the ensuing publicity, 450 people came forward to report crimes committed by Saville between 1955 and 2009, leading to 214 sexual offences being recorded. This lack of reporting of very serious crimes says something damning about victims’ confidence in our criminal justice system.

Even in those cases where victims of crime have come forward, too often they have been dismissed. The inquiry into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham found that 1400 children had been victims of sexual exploitation, but the few who had the courage to come forward were generally dismissed as not credible by the police and prosecutors. Some of the children were actually arrested themselves rather than any action being taken against those who had raped and assaulted them. The Crown Prosecution Service has since issued new guidance to deal with myths and stereotypes’.

When cases go to court there is still wide variation in the support provided for victims: unexplained court delays can cause major distress to victims who are already traumatised, victims are often not prepared for the experience of an adversarial court room, counselling is not offered systematically and the provision of restorative justice is patchy.

I will conclude however with three reasons for optimism: 1) the development of more integrated victims services locally, as in Northamptonshire, shows that giving Police and Crime Commissioners responsibility for victims and witnesses services is driving positive change, 2) restorative justice is now a grassroots movement with a great deal of energy behind it, not least because of those who have been through it and are now advocates for it, and 3) there is now cross party support for a Victim’s Law, spearheaded by Keir Starmer MP, which would put our patchy framework of victim’s entitlements onto a statutory footing.

Victims are not yet at the heart of the system, but they are moving out of the shadows.