The Criminal Justice System can be a complex and confusing, especially when you have suffered the trauma of a crime. The Victims’ Commissioner has set out answers to some of the questions she receives from victims – we hope you find these useful.
What does your role of Victims' Commissioner involve?
The role of the Victims’ Commissioner, as set out in law, is to promote the interests of victims and witnesses, to encourage good practice in their treatment and keep under review the operation of the Victims’ Code. I also share and promote best practice in the treatment of victims.
However, there is more to the role. A key part of the role is to listen and represent the views of victims. In my role I meet with victims and victims organisations. By listening to their experiences I am able to inform the government and policy makers about what needs to be done to make things better for victims.
In my role I am independent. I do not work for the government – I advise them and I challenge them. I do not represent any political party – I speak only for victims. My task is to hold the Government to account, however uncomfortable that might be for whoever is the Justice Secretary or the Prime Minister.
As Victims’ Commissioner, I am an active member of the National Criminal Justice Board. This is where the heads of the Criminal Justice agencies come together to review and develop policy. By sitting on this Board I can and do challenge the heads of agencies to say what they are doing to make things better for victims.
What do you think you have achieved as Victims' Commissioner so far?
I set this out in my Annual Report for the Justice Secretary which was published in June 2014 and some examples include:
- Conducting review of the Probation Victim Contact Scheme and making recommendations for change (nearly all of which have been accepted).
- Undertaking a review of Restorative Justice and presenting my findings to the Secretary of State for Justice. Again most of these recommendations have been accepted.
- Leading an Independent Review of Victim and Witness Services in London. This review was commissioned by the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC) and gave a detailed assessment of victim needs, the extent to which existing services met those needs, and recommendations to inform the commissioning of services under the new commissioning arrangements.
- Becoming an active member of the National Criminal Justice Board
- And I have of course met with many victims and been able to refer them onto organisations or people who have been able to help them. What surprised me about this is how much victims simply appreciated being listened to and how little they know about the things that are in place to help them.
What are your priorities for this year and beyond?
These are set out in my Annual Report for the Secretary of State for Justice but in summary they are:
Monitor Compliance with Victims’ Code:
• My top priority to ensure that all relevant agencies are compliant with the Victims’ Code or, where they are not, that there are clear plans in place to rectify this.
• In order to provide evidence about compliance with the Code, my office will be conducting a series of in depth reviews.
• My team, consisting of an analyst and two implementation advisors will be going out to agencies and victims to see and hear for themselves about what is really happening on the ground. Following the reviews my team will prepare detailed reports on their findings and I will use these reports to:
1. inform my feedbacks to ministers and to the heads of relevant organisations
2. challenge organisations’ own perceptions of their compliance with the Code
3. share examples of good practice and expose failings
Complaints and Redress for Victims:
• My aim is to improve victims’ satisfaction with how their complaints are dealt with; my reviews into compliance with the Code will focus specifically on this subject.
• Through my role on the National Criminal Justice Board, through my meetings with judges and through my reviews, I will highlight good practice, seek changes to poor practice and ensure ministers and heads of organisations are aware of my findings.
Restorative Justice (RJ):
• My aim is to find out more about the potential benefits and risks of RJ. I want to secure a better understanding about where it should and should not be used and ensure victims are genuinely aware of their choices to participate or not. Through my links with researchers and academic institutions, I will highlight work to expand and share the knowledge base. I also want to ensure that where RJ is delivered it is undertaken by staff who have received high quality training.
Putting Victims first when cases are dealt with out of court:
• My aim is to increase victims’ and the public's understanding of how out of court disposals operate and to ensure victims are clear about their entitlements. I will work with the Police and Crime Prosecution Service to see how the findings into the pilots to simplify out of court disposals can be used to increase understanding and to promote more consistent practice.
Giving Victims, including vulnerable victims, a voice:
• My aim is to ensure feedback from victims, including vulnerable victims, is used to inform development and implementation of policy. I will work with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to improve the experience of victims of crime committed overseas. I will consider how the learning from the pilots into pre-trial cross examination might be used to improve all victims’ experiences of cross examination nationally.
Will the Victims Code help the most vulnerable of victims?
I hope so:
• The Code sets out that those victims of the most serious crime, persistently targeted and vulnerable or intimidated victims are entitled to receive enhanced services
• There is also a section relating specifically to the needs of children and young people.
• What matters is how victims are kept informed, how things are explained to them and how they are supported during their journey through the Criminal Justice System.
• The new Code outlines that victims of the most serious crime, persistently targeted and vulnerable or intimidated victims are entitled to receive enhanced services from CJAs. Victims in these categories are more likely to need additional support through the criminal justice process.
• There is also a section dedicated to the needs of children and young people.
Does the Victims Code not apply to victims of crime abroad?
• The Victims’ Code (Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004) only extends to England and Wales. But I think it is an important document for you because if the offender is an English or Welsh citizen and they are returned to this country to service their sentence, there will be aspects of the Code that apply.
• For example if the prisoner has been given an indeterminate sentence (this is similar to life sentence in the UK) the offender would be subject to parole processes in the same way as if he or she had been sentenced in this country
• This means you have the right to make Victim Personal Statement when the offender is being considered for transfer to open conditions or release. If the offender is being considered for release you can request licence conditions are attached to his release such as a condition not to go to specific places.
• If the offender is given a determinate sentence (i.e. a fixed number of years say 20 years) he will be released on licence automatically at the half way point (unless it is a very old offence). You won’t be able to make a VPS because the release is automatic but you can ask for conditions to be included in his licence such as a condition not to contact you or your family
• To help you with this you can be included in the Probation Victim Contact Scheme if you wish. This means you will be allocated a Victim liaison Officer who will discuss key stages of the offender’s sentence with you and advise you how to request specific licence conditions should you wish to do so.
How will the Victims Code be enforced, what sanctions will apply where it has been broken, and what redress will there be?
• The Government will be monitoring agencies’ compliance with the Code and I will feed into this process through my role on the National Criminal Justice Board and through my meetings with heads of agencies, ministers and the Prime Minister.
• I have also put together a small team, who are going out and examining how the code is being implemented in practice. These reviews will highlight good practice and expose poor practice. I will share my findings with ministers and heads of agencies and ask them how they are going to address any failures.
• Although failure to provide services under the Code does not in itself make a service provider liable to legal proceedings, a court may take failure to comply with the Code into account when making decisions
• The complaints process in the Victims’ Code has been improved so that victims know who to contact and what to expect if things go wrong. We are working closely with the Cabinet Office in their review for a single government ombudsman.
I don’t think the Victims Code goes far enough on timeliness; every agency has been cut including the court service. Cases are constantly put back and double- or treble-listed.
The listing of hearings is a judicial function. But where cases are put back or there are other delays it is important that victims are told about this at the earliest opportunity. It is important that someone takes the time to explain the reasons for delays to them and checks that they have understood them. They need to be given the opportunity to digest information and to ask questions both immediately and at a later date.
The Code entitles every victim of crime to an initial needs assessment by the Police and then to be automatically referred to support services where their needs will be further assessed.
The Code sets timelines which agencies must meet in every case, as well as providing enhanced levels of services to victims of the most serious crime, persistently targeted and vulnerable or intimidated victims, to make sure they get the right support at the right time.
The Code also places a duty on Criminal Justice Agencies to ensure that victims eligible for enhanced services receive information on their case within a shorter period of time than other victims.
Can you tell us more about the EU Directive?
• The EU Directive establishes minimum standards on the rights, support and protection of victims of crime committed in EU countries. This will mean that someone from the UK who is a victim of crime, or who has a family member whose death was caused by a criminal offence, elsewhere in the European Union will have similar rights to those who are victims of crime in the UK.
• The Victims’ Directive was formally adopted on 4 October 2012 and the government expect to fully implement the Directive by November 2015.
• The proposal was published on 18 May 2011 as the first step on the ‘Budapest Roadmap’ which is a political agreement to a package of measures intended to improve victims’ rights.
• The majority of the Directive reflects existing practice. Few policy changes are anticipated. Any necessary changes to national law will be delivered through secondary legislation and statutory codes. For example, a large part of the Directive was transposed into the new Victims’ Code which came into force in December 2013.
• The Directive is aligned with the aims and objectives of our domestic criminal justice policies.
Why did the Government sign up to this Directive?
• The UK government recognised the importance of improving standards on the entitlements, support and protection available to victims of crime across the EU.
• UK citizens increasingly travel and work across the EU and they may fall victim to crime in another member state. The government wanted to ensure that UK citizens are provided with information, in the EU.
How will the EU Directive affect our existing national laws?
• The Directive will be set up so it is consistent with domestic policy.
Are there any parts of Directive that the Government may not be able to implement?
• The Government is committed to implementing Directive in full
What are the risks for not fully implementing the Directive?
• The European Commission is able to initiate infraction proceedings which can result in large fines being imposed upon the UK if it considers the UK has not implemented the directive.
• The Ministry of Justice will be responsible for overseeing the implementation of the Directive and informing the European Commission that it has transposed the Directive into domestic law by November 2015.
What is your role regarding The Victims and Witnesses Charter?
In addition to my priorities relating to compliance with the Victim’s Code, I will also be keeping an eye on how the Witness Charter is being implemented. Unlike the Code, the Witness Charter is not statutory and it states that there may be constraints which affect the ability of the various agencies to provide services. It also explains that agencies and lawyers will seek to comply with the standards, as far as it is practicable and their professional rules allow. I will want to know the extent that these provisos are used in practice and I will seek feedback from agencies and witnesses about this.
What support is there for victims of Homicide overseas?
As you will probably know the government recently awarded a grant to Victim Support to provide a national ‘Homicide Service’
• This followed a competitive tendering process
• The services provided by Victim Support include services to those who have been bereaved by homicide overseas. This was an explicit part of their bid.
• The Homicide Service will also provide support to families where the homicide has occurred abroad, including liaison with foreign judicial processes
• They are not however required to provide the service in any specific way e.g. they can ask another agency to deliver it but they do not have to. Nor do they have to dedicate a specific amount of money to it.
• As I am sure you will know the government also intends to continue funding existing peer support services and will review provision in 2015
• The Foreign and Commonwealth Office also provides Victim Support England and Wales with an annual £100k grant to enable them to provide support for UK residents bereaved by homicide abroad. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office also has similar agreements with Victim Support Scotland and Northern Ireland.
• If an offender convicted overseas returns to England or Wales to complete his or her sentence you can be included in the Probation Victim Contact Scheme if you wish. This means you will be allocated a Victim Liaison Officer (VLO) who will discuss key stages of the offender’s sentence with you. If there are Parole hearings the VLO can advise you about your right to submit a victim personal statement and explain how you can request specific licence conditions if an offender is released on licence to help you feel safer.
What help is there for victims of terrorism overseas?
• In 2012, the Government introduced a Scheme to make payments to victims of terrorism who were injured in incidents outside the United Kingdom (UK) on or after 27 November 2012. From this date, victims are able to apply for an award under this Scheme.
• Responsibility for the designation of terrorist attacks for the purposes of the Scheme falls to the Foreign Secretary. This Scheme covers victims resident in Northern Ireland.
Eligibility: The Scheme applies to victims who were injured in a designated act. British,European Union, European Economic Area and Swiss citizens who have been resident in the UK for three years immediately before the designated act may be eligible for an award. Victims bereaved as a result of a designated act may also be eligible for an award. This Scheme covers victims resident in Northern Ireland.
The types of payment which may be made under his Scheme are:
• Injury Payments
• Loss of earnings payments
• Special expenses payments
• Bereavement payments
• Child’s payments
• Dependency payments
• Funeral payments
• Certain other payments in fatal cases
The maximum available under any single claim is £500,000. The maximum available for a single injury under the tariff is £250,000.