November 30 2023

Victims’ rights, and the biggest ‘justice gap’ of all

Victims’ rights, and the biggest ‘justice gap’ of all

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walking shadow, by Claudio Cesarano,  flickr, creative comms,

‘Walking Shadow’, by Claudio Cesarano, Flickr

‘There is a growing consensus that our criminal justice system does not serve victims well. The enactment of a Victims’ Law has to be a defining moment for victims’ rights and a clear departure from the piecemeal approach so far adopted.’

So said Keir Starmer QC today, launching the report of the Labour Party Victims’ Taskforce. The report, written by Starmer, Baroness Doreen Lawrence and Peter Neyroud, a former senior police officer, aims to secure a ‘cultural shift in thinking on victims’ rights’. They aim to do this by creating a statutory framework for victims’ services across the country, by introducing a mandatory reporting law, and by cementing in legislation entitlements – to review of decisions, to be kept updated on cases – currently set out in the voluntary Victims’ Code. In other words, the report aims to give statutory underpinning to victims’ rights: hence a Victims’ Law, rather than yet another charter.

Why is a Victims’ Law necessary? The answer is set out at the beginning of the report: ‘One of the standout features of our criminal justice system is that most victims of personal and sexual violence are unlikely to report their allegations to the police.’ It’s an unacceptable reality that many victims have little confidence in the criminal justice system.

Many of my clients who suffered child sexual exploitation in Rochdale, and gave evidence in lengthy criminal trials, vowed that they would never again undergo such a traumatic experience – and this despite the fact that their abusers were found guilty. Many more victims of crime, particularly sexual offences, never come forward in the first place. This is the biggest ‘justice gap’ of all, and it has to change.

The key feature of the Taskforce report (and one which differentiates it from last year’s ‘Commitment to Victims‘ document from Chris Grayling (PDF)) is that it seeks to enshrine rights and duties in legislation. Things have already been done to help victims, in some parts of the country and in some cases, but they have been piecemeal and inconsistent. The authors of the Taskforce report want legislative guarantees, and advocate several key reforms, including:

  • A clear mandatory duty on those working with children within a ‘regulated activity’ to report suspected child abuse, backed up by criminal sanctions for failure to do so. Although this change, much campaigned for by abuse survivors, has already been endorsed by the Labour Party (and the Liberal Democrats) the report fleshes out more of the detail
  • A statutory framework  for adequate and quality assured victims services in every area of the country, underpinned by an annual ‘Area Victims’ Plan’, which must be evaluated by the Victim Commissioner and recommendations for improvement laid before parliament on an annual basis
  • A legally entrenched victims’ right of review of decisions by police or prosecutors not to bring charges
  • Statutory underpinning for the Victims’ Code, with breaches of the Code being published in an annual report to Parliament
  •  A statutory duty for judges to hold ‘ground rules’ hearings before a trial starts to ensure vulnerable victims and witnesses are treated fairly in court.

The oft-repeated canard is that any sort of victims’ law inevitably involves undermining or diminishing the rights of defendants. On this Starmer was clear: ‘Victims’ rights should not be developed at the expense of defendants’ rights. Defendants’ rights have developed for good reasons and a fair criminal justice system should protect the respect the rights of all whose interests are a stake.’

This is absolutely correct.

Defendants’ rights have been hard-won, and with good reason.  There is nothing in this report which undermines them. Indeed those alleging that defendants’ rights would be undermined by a Victims’ Law seemed keen to make that accusation before they had actually read the report. I fail to see how ensuring that victims have safe places to disclose, ensuring that allegations of child abuse are properly investigated, ensuring the victims have a statutory right of review, and ensuring that cross examination of victims is sensibly managed, can be said to undermine the rights of defendants.

These changes will mean that serious crimes are more likely to be reported, will be properly investigated and that victims can give their evidence in the court process without fear and intimidation. That does not undermine the rights of defendants; it simply helps us to get to the truth.

Starmer’s proposals are much more far reaching than Grayling’s. But the existence of both documents is evidence of a growing political consensus that the interests of victims cannot be ignored.  As Baroness Lawrence said at today’s press conference, whichever party wins the election needs to seize this opportunity to transform the criminal justice system into a criminal justice service fit for all, including victims. The Taskforce proposals are the starting point for achieving just that.