Victims of crime in England and Wales receive less favourable treatment in the criminal justice system than in other countries and treated as ‘bystanders’, according to a new report published by the Victim’s Commissioner.
The report, authored by Jane and Alison Gordon of Sisters for Change, calls for victims to be given a statutory right to make representations which decision-makers must respond to. The authors draw upon victim rights frameworks in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States. Despite similar ‘common law’ legal systems, the report notes that England and Wales is lagging behind. All other jurisdictions provide stronger substantive rights to victims of crime, enabling them to make representations to the police, prosecutors, the courts and parole bodies. England and Wales meanwhile is the only jurisdiction without some form of specific charter or law granting victims enforceable rights.
‘Crimes are seen as an attack on the state and not against the victim. So proceedings are not there to put right the victim’s wrong but to enable the state to inflict punishment and affirm the rule of law’, commented Victim’s Commissioner Dame Vera Baird QC. ‘If a case is brought, the victim can be compelled to be a witness but not to talk about what they have personally suffered, merely, like a bystander, to tell the court what the defendant did’.
The authors recommend that a ‘Victim’s Law’ be added to the statute books, which would designate victims ‘participants’ in the criminal proceedings, elevating them to the same level as the defendant and the state. It is envisaged that the law would provide a number of guarantees and protections, including the right to be treated with respect at all times, and shielded from unnecessary trauma. The report also calls upon the government to grant victims substantive rights to make their voices heard in relation to the offender’s charge, sentencing and parole decisions.
Whilst some believe that allowing victims to voice their perspectives in court may unfairly tip the scales in favour of the prosecution, the report takes the view that this fear is exaggerated. Jonathan Doak, an expert in the field, comments that ‘it is difficult to see how some [victims’] rights, such as the provision of information, support at court, or the provision of good facilities, impact upon defendants at all… there are a number of scenarios in which the victim and the defendant will share mutual concerns, such as the desire for a prompt and efficient trial and to be provided with information about procedure’.
The report’s findings echo recent indications that victims are dissatisfied with their treatment by the police and CPS. The Crime Survey for England and Wales 2018-19 shows that while 73% of victims were happy with initial treatment by the police, 52% grew discontent with a lack of communication. In 2019, almost a quarter (23%) of criminal cases in England & Wales were dropped because the victim did not support further action, compared with only 8.7% in 2015.