What is the victim's role in criminal proceedings?

Focusing on the entitlement of victims to read their statements in court, it certainly makes a nice policy announcement and a nice sound bite for the 10 o’clock news. Many are of the view that it goes no further than that.

New Statesman
Where victims were once seen as ancillary to proceedings, they now play a bigger role. Image: Getty

There has been a growing trend in recent times surrounding the involvement of the victim in criminal proceedings. Where once they were seen as – and made to feel – ancillary to proceedings, there has over a number of years been a change of direction.

Both Labour and the Government have sought to gain political capital from championing the victim. The government announced there would be a victims’ code. This was trashed by Labour as toothless, promising to go one better and make it a law. At first this appears to be one-upmanship, but is there any substance?

The key promises

The key promise hitting the headlines today is that where a person is found guilty, victims will now be able to read their victim personal statements aloud in court, if they wish to do so.

Among other ‘entitlements’ are to be kept informed about the police investigation, such as if a suspect is arrested and charged and any bail conditions imposed;of any appeal against the offender’s conviction or sentence; and of how to seek a review of a CPS decision not to prosecute.

Victims will also be able to opt into the Victim Contact Scheme (VCS) if the offender is sentenced to 12 months or more for a specified violent or sexual offence where they will be able to make a VPS for consideration by the Parole Board if the offender is considered for release or transfer and apply to the Parole Board to read it out at the hearing.

These all seem like decent ideas, giving a voice to the victim and ensuring they will be heard.

Politicking?

Is this new Code an exercise in PR for a government gearing up for an election? Probably. Is there anything of substance to it? I think so.

Focusing on the entitlement of victims to read their statements in court, it certainly makes a nice policy announcement and a nice sound bite for the 10 o’clock news. Many are of the view that it goes no further than that. The truth is that as the law stands at the moment, prior to the code coming into force, victims can, where appropriate, read their statement aloud in court (though the courts have stated that this will be rare). This announcement is likely to make that a more regular occurrence, though I doubt many will take up the opportunity to read their statements aloud. However, in terms of substance, if it helps a few victims with the process of coming to terms with being a victim of crime, then surely it is to be welcomed?

Is this a cosmetic change, raising the hopes of victims? The sceptics say that this changes nothing and unrealistically creates the impression of ‘ownership’ by a victim of a criminal case, which it does not. Decisions (to prosecute etc) are made by the CPS and will remain so. The Judge will decide, for example, whether a VPS should be read aloud at all, and if so, which sections are appropriate. However, those in favour see the importance for victims in being a part of the process, being kept informed, asked their opinion and given the opportunity to read their statement aloud, even if many will decline – and that is not cosmetic. It is a statement of intention, underlining that victims are no longer ancillary to proceedings, but that they have a say. This is the culmination of the rise of the victims’ voice. And why not? Judicial discretion is the ultimate safeguard against the inappropriate.

The Conservatives state that they are ‘making changes to ensure that the justice system is always on the side of victims’. Surely the point of justice is that it isn’t on anyone’s side? Let’s make sure this doesn’t go too far.

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