Last week Jack Straw announced the launch of the National Victims Service with an additional £8 million being channelled primarily through Victims Support. He said it was in response to the report of Sara Payne, the victims’ champion, which wants to ‘redefine justice’. The main recommendation is that victims need to be considered in terms of the total impact of the crime committed against them and their individual needs arising from this impact.
So what is the Government’s record in relation to victims of crime? Since 1997 there have been more than ten reports, reviews and numerous Bills, yet the Government’s repeated mantra of ‘putting victims at the centre of the criminal justice system’ (CJS) is sounding increasingly hollow.
The CJS has an important role to play in supporting the victim through the system and also after care. Since 2008 we have been calling for more dedicated support particularly for victims of serious violent crime, such as families of homicide victims. However the CJS exists to provide justice not social service and for most victims who feel let down it is because justice has not been done for them and seen to be done. Most criminal offences do not see the light of a court house and are dealt with by a slap on the wrist as a caution or a penalty charge notice, the equivalent of a parking ticket. In 2007, 624,000 of the 1.374 million offences were dealt with out of court by what the DPP describes as ‘instant justice’.
Crime is of course an offence against the victim. The problem is that the personal character and consequences of crime are often ignored by the offender which can then be perpetuated by the CJS. We increasingly view crimes as against ‘society’ and not victims, reducing the responsibility on the offender to repair the damage done to the victim.
One way in which the criminal justice system can get personal is by ensuring that compensation is paid to the victim as effectively as possible. Presently only 1 in 5 victims will get compensation. Our research has found that outstanding amounts of compensation owed by offenders to their victims rose 18.4 per cent to £150 million in 2008/09. While courts made new compensation orders totalling £66 million last year, only £42 million was collected. Too often compensation is not even considered by the court due to a lack of information and too often the opportunity to obtain compensation from an offender is lost. We wish to reform criminal compensation to make sure this doesn’t keep happening.
For example, we are looking at the merits of introducing ‘Reparation Orders’, following the example of New Zealand, with a strong statutory presumption in favour of reparation being made by the offender to the victim. We would look to ensure that reparation orders are enforced much more rigorously than the current system of compensation orders.
For many victims, a simple apology is all they are really looking for. Other victims want answers to their questions – why me? And some victims want to confront the offender with the real impact of their crimes, to make them understand the impact of their actions on others, in the hope that the offender will be motivated to change their way of life. We need to take seriously the evidence that restorative justice reduces offending and increases victim satisfaction.
We also need honest sentencing – offenders should be given a sentence which the victim and public know they will have to serve and not be released early by the back door.
At a time of increasing transparency and easier access to information, the criminal justice system is too closed and insular. Local court reporting – the forerunners of the local press – is virtually non-existent. The public have little idea what goes on in their local courts. As court locations become more centralised, there is little connection between the court process and the community of the victim and/ or the offender. Public confidence is determined by a perception of the effectiveness of the national CJS rather than any real understanding of the quality of the local justice system. We want to ensure that all victims are fully informed about the progress of criminal proceedings, hearing dates, adjournments, grants of bail, sentence dates and decisions and dates of parole/release.
It is no surprise that just 33% of the public believe that the system meets the needs of victims. The Government needs to recognise that it is not just about throwing more money at one organisation and assuming this will fix all the problems. Victims and their families do not just want someone to hold their hand as they travel through the justice system and the aftermath of the crime that has been committed. They want to know that justice has been done for them and their loved ones.
We need to not so much ‘redefine justice’ as refocus justice on delivering personal, open and honest punishment, reparation and rehabilitation.