The Victims' Commissioner and Domestic Abuse Commissioner join forces in calling for stronger Victims and Prisoners Bill.
This op-ed first appeared in the Daily Telegraph on 23 January 2024.
Our justice agencies have been found wanting, with few repercussions when they fail to deliver. It is time for change.
The Victims and Prisoners Bill represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform how victims of crime are treated in our justice system.
With its return to Parliament this week, victims and campaigners alike stand united in urging lawmakers to transform the victim experience. We believe that the Government shares this aspiration – and we want to help them achieve it. But good intentions need to be matched by bold legislation. We are working with peers in the House of Lords to make that a reality.
As the Victims’ Commissioner and the Domestic Abuse Commissioner, all too frequently we hear of victims being failed. Though our focus differs, we are united in our mission to champion the rights and safety of victims of crime, including domestic abuse.
Victims are not asking for much; they simply want fairness – a level playing field, where their needs and rights are considered alongside those of the offender. But too often, when victims need them, our justice agencies are found wanting – with few repercussions when they fail to deliver. It is time for change.
Enter the Victims and Prisoners Bill, which will be read today in committee stage in the Lords. Campaigners and politicians of all stripes have long called for such a “victims’ law”: putting victims’ rights on a statutory footing and finally ending the culture where victims’ entitlements are regarded as “optional” extras instead of a core part of delivering justice.
Certainly, there is much in the Victims and Prisoners Bill to commend it, and it goes some way to delivering on this vision. But we require a transformation in victim treatment, not more tinkering around the edges.
To this end, we are collaborating with peers across all parties who want to strengthen the Bill and give it the “teeth” it needs. Last week, we held a roundtable with peers – from all parties and none – and the consensus was clear: the Bill is welcome but it must go further. A number of crucial amendments have now been tabled, ready to be debated in the chamber to ensure that the Bill truly delivers.
We want to see more robust mechanisms for holding justice agencies like the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to account in delivering victim rights; we need new safeguards to protect the rights of victims of sexual violence; and we are calling for the remit of the Victims’ Code to be extended, to include excluded groups like victims of persistent anti-social behaviour.
We are also both standing proudly with victims of domestic abuse: we need to secure the future of critical domestic abuse services through guaranteed funding, and ensure that all survivors, regardless of immigration status or recourse to public funds, can access support, safety and justice.
We know that rape victims face unjustified demands for irrelevant personal information and cases are frequently dropped if victims do not sign it over. These victims are, in effect, being forced to choose between justice and their right to a private life. That is not a choice, that is an ultimatum. The Bill must address this and introduce new privacy safeguards.
For many vulnerable victims, their experience of the justice system will depend on whether they can access quality specialist support through the process. Recent research from the Domestic Abuse Commissioner found that domestic abuse services are increasingly struggling to stay afloat. The Bill must place a duty on government to provide enough funding so that victims can get the help they need when they need it. This includes specialist provision for marginalised communities, such as LGBT+, black and minoritised, and deaf and disabled victims.
The Bill, and the criminal justice system, must be there for all victims. Currently, some 32,000 victims of domestic abuse have no recourse to public funds, meaning that they are turned away from lifesaving support – unable to flee and seek refuge when they need it most.
Equally, migrant victims are unable to safely report to the police for fear that they will be reported to immigration authorities. Abusers know this and use this fear to further control their victims. All victims of crime must be able to seek safety and justice without fear and regardless of their immigration status.
This Bill represents a rare chance to radically revamp how victims navigate our justice system. We must get it right. Victims deserve no less.