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Independent report calls for the Victims’ Commissioner to have enhanced powers to ensure agencies are held to account

New research reveals the Victims' Commissioner needs an enhanced role and powers to ensure entitlements under the Victims' Code are properly delivered and agencies held to account.

If victims’ rights are important, why is it that they cannot be enforced? If agencies have duties, why is it they cannot be compelled to perform these duties?
Constitutional powers of the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales, November 2020.

See the full report online.
Read Dame Vera Baird’s column in the Telegraph.

Victims of crime need an independent overseer of their rights and entitlements, to ensure they are treated appropriately by criminal justice agencies and adequately supported through the criminal justice process, according to a new report which calls for the Victims’ Commissioner to have an enhanced scrutiny and oversight role.

The Victims’ Commissioner, currently Dame Vera Baird, has a statutory duty to review the operation of the Victims’ Code. But as a new report published today (3 December 2020) reveals, the Victims’ Commissioners presently lacks the necessary powers to carry out her statutory obligations.

Written and researched by Professor Pamela Cox, Dr Ruth Lamont, Professor Maurice Sunkin and published today, the report highlights that the Victims’ Commissioner has no statutory powers to ensure criminal justice agencies comply with the Victims’ Code. The report makes a number of recommendations to help the Victims’ Commissioner fulfil her statutory obligations.

Dame Vera says it is her intention to make the Victims’ Code work properly for all victims. But she is currently unable to properly scrutinise victims’ rights and entitlements or to effectively hold criminal justice agencies to account in meeting their obligations to victims. “The history of victims’ codes,” says Dame Vera, “is that everyone approves of them, but the rights are only patchily delivered.”

Too often, she says, victims leave the criminal justice process feeling unhappy about their treatment. She adds: “They can even be made to feel worse after their involvement with the criminal justice system than about the crime.”

Other research backs up claims that victims’ entitlements under the Victims Code are not being delivered. In the year ending March 2019, more than half of victims said the police did not keep them well informed on the progress in their case. The police are expected to refer victims onto support services when a crime is reported, but just one in ten victims said they had had contact with victims’ services. Only one in seven victims recalled the police giving them an opportunity to make a Victim Personal Statement.

“All of these failings represent a breach of the Victims Code,” says Dame Vera.

The report outlines new proposed powers, which would compel criminal justice agencies to co-operate with the Victims’ Commissioner. The authors recommend that the Victims’ Commissioner should be given the power to insist that action be taken, or practices be altered to best serve victims.

The authors of the Cox report propose that the Victims’ Commissioner requires additional powers in at least two broad areas, including powers to require or recommend a change of practice and powers to deal with complaints.

There is growing consensus across the political spectrum that victims’ rights need to be enshrined in law and that this law should be clearly enforceable and monitored. On 19 November, the Ministry of Justice published its new draft of the Victims Code, which sets out twelve rights.

The Government has also pledged to introduce a ‘Victims’ Law’ which will, among other things, enshrine these rights into law. It also presents an opportunity to review and enhance the Victim Commissioners’ statutory powers so that criminal justice agencies’ compliance with these rights can be effectively monitored and upheld.

Dame Vera Baird QC, Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales, said:

“This report poses two key questions: if victims’ rights are important, why is it that they cannot be enforced? If agencies have duties, why is it that they cannot be compelled to perform these duties?

The history of victims’ codes is that everyone approves of them, but the rights are only ever patchily delivered. If we are to improve justice for victims, as we urgently need to do, simply ensuring they are guaranteed the rights that have been set out in the Victims’ Code will be a foundational first step.

I commissioned this research to have a fresh look at what minimum powers would be needed for the Victims’ Commissioner properly to review the operation of the Victims’ Code and to drive improvement in the interests of victims. I plan to give these recommendations very careful consideration.

The Victims’ Law offers a chance to tackle the dilemma that victims’ rights aren’t working, aren’t enforceable and are rights only as long as the agencies responsible want victims to have them. This report can play a key part in shaping how we make the best of that opportunity.”

Prof Pamela Cox said:

“If we uphold victims’ rights, we strengthen the criminal justice system as a whole in the wider public interest.

As the role is currently configured, the Victims’ Commissioner is established as an advocate for victims but not as an effective monitoring and scrutinising role. The Commissioner has very few tools with which to work. At present, the Code is neither enforceable in law nor able to be kept under effective review.”