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New Victims Bill measures a ‘solid step forward’, but further progress needed — Victims’ Commissioner

While many of the revisions are welcome and in line with campaigning by the Victims' Commissioner, Baroness Newlove hopes to see further progress in the coming weeks.

On April 9th, the Ministry of Justice announced significant revisions to the Victims and Prisoners Bill.

These include new measures to ensure victims of serious crimes committed by those with mental disorders will be provided with the opportunity to make a Victim Impact Statement (VPS) during the Mental Health Tribunal process, which takes place before offenders are released and allows survivors to request release conditions.

This brings those detained under hospital orders in line with the VPS process for those detained in the prison system.

The police and other criminal justice agencies will also be placed under greater scrutiny through a new duty, required to deliver victim services in accordance with the Victims’ Code.

Compliance will be overseen by the Victims’ Commissioner, and ministers will be required to consult the Commissioner when agencies fail to deliver the required standard of services for victims ahead of being issued “notifications of non-compliance”.

Enhancing Victims’ Code compliance and accountability

Previously, the Ministry of Justice published their plans for a national oversight system that will monitor agencies compliance with the Victims’ Code, including issuing non-compliance notifications in cases of severe and persistent non-compliance.

Under newly tabled amendments, ministers will be required to consult the Victims’ Commissioner before issuing such notifications, adding additional layer of scrutiny and making the process more victim-centred.

There is also a new requirement placed on Ministers to publish an annual review of Code compliance and lay it in Parliament, following consultation with the Victims’ Commissioner.

Responding to the changes to the Bill, the Victims’ Commissioner, Baroness Newlove, said:
“I have always said the success of the Victims and Prisoners Bill hinges on whether it delivers genuine compliance with the Victims’ Code. Persistent non-compliance on the part of criminal justice bodies must have consequences. The recent government revisions to the Bill are a positive development, representing a solid step forward. These revisions will promote better and consistent compliance with the Code, ultimately leading to better treatment for victims.

“I remain in active dialogue with government across a range of issues and hope to see further progress in the coming weeks. It is important this legislation become a truly comprehensive package that delivers justice and support for all victims.”

Victim personal statements in the Mental Health Tribunal

Currently, victims of offenders detained under mental health orders do not have the chance to share how the crime affected them during Mental Health Tribunal hearings. This is different from the parole system, where victims can speak about the impact on their lives before the Parole Board decides on release conditions.

To address this, the government has tabled an amendment to make provision for victims to share the impact of the crime with the Mental Health Tribunal and Mental Health Tribunal for Wales and set out what may be considered when determining the patient’s discharge conditions. (The discharge itself will remain based only on whether the Mental Health Act criteria for detention continue to be met.)

The amendment will also allow victims to apply to read their statement at a relevant Tribunal hearing with a requirement that such applications must be granted by the Tribunal unless there is good reason not to.

This reflects a key recommendation in Baroness Newlove’s 2018 report, Entitlements and experiences of victims of mentally disordered offenders.

Commenting on this announcement, the Victims’ Commissioner, said:
“Victims deserve to be heard. They deserve a chance to explain the lasting impact of crime on their lives. However, the current system silences victims whose offenders are detained under a hospital order, effectively creating a two-tiered justice system.

“Unlike victims of those serving prison sentences, victims in these cases cannot submit a Victim Personal Statement (VPS) to tribunals considering the offender’s release. This denies a significant portion of victims a crucial voice in the justice process.

“I welcome government moves today to address this disparity. Extending VPS rights and allowing victims to read out their statement at a tribunal hearing will finally level the playing field. As Victims’ Commissioner, I’ve long championed this change, with recent events further underscoring the need for action. This is a crucial step towards a fairer justice system for all.”

Non-disclosure agreements

In some instances, confidentiality clauses (also known as non-disclosure agreements, NDAs or ‘gagging orders’), can be misused to prevent victims of crime from accessing support. There is also a lack of legal clarity about who victims can disclose to — including the police — without fearing a breach of their agreement.

To address this, the government have tabled an amendment clarifying that confidentiality clauses cannot be legally enforced if they prevent victims from reporting a crime and will ensure information related to criminal conduct can be disclosed to support services without fear of legal action.

In response to this move, the Victims’ Commissioner, said:
“The misuse of Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) can act as a significant barrier to justice for victims. These agreements have the effect of silencing victims, denying them access to justice and crucial support to help them rebuild their lives.

I welcome moves to clarify the law and make it clear to victims that NDAs cannot be used to scare victims into silence. Victims deserve to be heard, and this clarification is an important step towards a system that empowers them to speak out.”

Further changes required

Despite the new measures, key victim groups remain unsupported. Victims of persistent anti-social behaviour are all too often denied access to vital emotional and practical support under the Victims’ Code. The bereaved of those murdered abroad are also denied recognition as victims in their own right — simply because the crime took place overseas. The Victims’ Commissioner remains firmly of the view that the Bill must address both these issues. 

There is also a lack of progress in providing safeguards that protect the rights of victims of sexual violence. These victims are routinely pressured into surrendering private information, including counselling and therapy notes — in effect forced to choose between justice and their right to a private life. The Victims’ Commissioner continues to push for amendments to protect their right to confidentiality.

The Victims’ Commissioner remains in active dialogue with the government on these and other issues, hoping to see further progress.