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.

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.

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

Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.