A consultation has been launched into a new ‘Victims’ Law’ that the Justice Secretary says would guarantee greater consultation with victims during the criminal justice process. The Crown Prosecution Service, police and courts would have to properly account for the service they provide to victims and make sure their voices are properly heard.
Who or what is a victim?
The government’s definition of victim acknowledges that the terms complainant and survivor are also used in the criminal justice system. A victim is one who has suffered harm (physical, mental or emotional) or economic loss which was directly caused by a criminal offence, or close relative of a person whose death was directly caused by a criminal offence.
Why is this required?
It is said that every year one in five people will become a victim of crime. In order to have an effective justice system it is necessary to look after the victims so that they stay engaged with the process. The government seeks to ensure all victims receive the service they need with high-quality engagement with all agencies so that their voices are heard. If they do not receive a quality service there must be a clear path to redress and consistent oversight of the agencies there to help them. Finally, the vision is to help victims to rebuild their lives and recover from the impact of the offending with services supported by funding from the Victim Surcharge.
The proposals are based on taking better account of victims’ views at regular points during the case and the consultation covers five key issues:
- What victims should expect.
- Performance and accountability.
- The Victim Surcharge.
- Community-based support services.
- Improved advocacy support.
The proposals include:
Meetings with victims
Prosecutors will be explicitly required to meet victims of specified crimes before the charging decision is made to understand the impact on the victim.
Community impact statements
Community impact statements would allow for an account to be given of the collective impact of an offence, including in situations where there was no clear victim. A similar system exists in Canada; an example was a case involving several defendants who had viewed images of child sexual abuse. A collective impact statement was used so a number of victims featured in the material could explain the offence’s impact on them.
Clear expectations will be set of the service victims can expect from the police, Crown Prosecution Service, and the courts. New legislation would be aimed at increasing victims’ voices in the system, providing more support for them and making agencies more accountable in delivering that support.
The definition of community-based support provision covers advice services, advocacy services and recovery and support work. There are challenges for victims to access the required support and a growing demand for services. The government is to increase funding and notes there are calls for tailored or specialised services and a need to cater for victims of different ages and of different crimes.
The consultation looks at ways to better co-ordinate support services with more formalised structures to improve effective joint working between agencies. Questions are asked about formalised collaboration structures and how to clearly define roles and responsibilities to improve service provision.
The role of victim advocates is considered in the consultation as victim satisfaction with them is second only to their satisfaction with trained counsellors or psychologists. Funding is available for the roles but the government also wants to consider how further action could support professional advocates for adult and child victims of “hidden-harm crimes”. They will also examine how advocates work with other agencies to provide a joined-up service.
Whenever an individual is sentenced, a victim surcharge is imposed; the level of the penalty is dependent on the type of sentence imposed. The money goes towards funding victim support services, and one of the proposals is to increase the level of the penalties by 20%.
The rate was initially a flat rate of £15 and is currently between £22 and £190. The contribution the surcharge makes to the budget allocated to victim and witness support services accounts for 25%. The proposal is to raise the amounts to between £26 and £226 or to increase the minimum to £100. Consideration is also given to increasing the minimum rates for more serious offences to reflect the impact on victims and for proportionality.
If victims do not receive the level of support they are entitled to, there will be clear avenues of redress. The consultation also asks whether better oversight across the system could improve the performance through strengthening inspection regimes and increasing the role of Police and Crime Commissioners.
The responsibility for the issues relating to victims’ experiences is spread across many different agencies meaning it can be difficult to obtain an overview of how the system is working for victims. The current oversight mechanisms include the Victims’ Commissioner, the individual agencies, the Police and Crime Commissioners and agency inspectorates. The consultation asks questions as to improvement of PCC’s commissioning of support services, and collaboration and data sharing at a local level. It also looks at what the government could do to bolster existing functions to provide a greater focus on service delivery and to consider options for the more effective collation of victim data and to ensure regular reporting.
Quarterly performance scorecards are to be issued spanning the entire system. The scorecards are part of a drive for greater transparency and to hold all the agencies involved in the criminal justice system to account. The government says the publication of the data will help identify and address concerns. The scorecards will also contain information on the number of cases going through the system and the timeframes for investigation, charging and finalising the case. The initial scorecard covers the entire criminal justice system, with local scorecards due next year to cover greater detail in each area of the country.
Scorecards are introduced to provide transparency so that the government can see where victims are being failed and to address those issues. The ultimate aim being to drive up standards and spread best practice. The local scorecards will enable geographic performance comparisons.
This section in the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 allows for the pre-recording of victims’ evidence in certain circumstances. The government has confirmed that victims of sexual and modern slavery offences will be able to pre-record their evidence for the crown court so that they do not need to give evidence in court in person during the trial. The system is currently being piloted in seven courts, and the government says it will work with the judiciary, police and Crown Prosecution Service to develop a plan so that it will be available across all courts “as soon as possible”.
The roll-out of pre-recorded evidence formed part of the Rape Review that took place earlier this year. A report was recently published monitoring the work done says that considerable headway has been made that includes:
- the publication of scorecards relating to offences of rape;
- funding secured for more Independent Sexual Violence Advisors to provide advice and support for victims and to act as a link between the victim and police, support services and criminal justice agencies;
- greater emphasis in investigations placed on the suspect’s behaviour rather than the victim’s credibility;
- a pilot scheme to return mobile phones to victims within 24 hours or for a replacement to be provided;
- training of 1000 specialist rape prosecutors, 470 extra CPS staff and 11,000 additional police officers of the promised 20,000; and
- investment of a quarter of a billion pounds to support the recovery of the court with extra capacity in Nightingale courts, super courts to deliver swifter justice and limit-free sitting days in the crown court.
The new Victims’ Code will come into force in April, which sets out the level of support victims can expect. The Code entitles victims to be “treated with respect, dignity, sensitivity, compassions and courtesy” and the consultation asks whether the Code should be enshrined in law.
Statistics show that only 18% of victims remember being asked if they wanted to provide a victim personal statement and only 45% felt they were kept informed by the police and other justice agencies. The Code says that vulnerable or intimidated victims shou be asked about special measures but a survey said that only two-thirds of rape victims who appeared in court recalled being given a choice. Victims need to be aware of their rights under the Code to give them the confidence to ask questions if they are not given those rights.
What else is being done?
The government says that there are making progress on other plans such as improved, targeted support for victims of different crimes. Examples given are the new domestic abuse strategy, a new strategy to tackle hate crime, modern slavery and consideration of ways to tackle anti-social behaviour.
Additional funding of £2.2 billion is also being provided to go towards supporting victims by 2024/25. The number of Independent Sexual and Domestic Violence Advisors will be increased, and a 24-hour sexual violence helpline will be funded.
The Victims’ Bill consultation will run until 3 February 2022; a response and legislation will be drawn up following its conclusion.
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[Image credit: “The British Parliament and Big Ben” by ** Maurice ** is licensed under CC BY 2.0]