Victims’ Commissioner Baroness Newlove is interviewed by Ian Weinfass. Article reproduced with permission of the Police Oracle.

Rights of victims must be given greater focus, says campaigner-turned-commissioner

Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales will continue to champion new law even after she leaves her post, she tells Police Oracle.

Human rights should be clear and enshrined for victims, as much as they should be for defendants.

As she moves towards the end of her six years as the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales, Baroness Helen Newlove’s priorities remain clear.

“Human rights is not just for one party, it’s for both and I think that’s where a victims’ law would enable that side to get looked at.”

“That’s why I really champion the victim’s personal statement [being used in court] because that’s where people get to hear about the impact.”

In a criminal justice system that’s adversarial and often dry and procedural, Lady Newlove wants the feelings and emotions of victims to play a greater role in the process. But that begins with addressing their needs.

After her husband Garry was murdered by a gang of youths outside the home she shared with him and their three daughters in 2007 she became a community campaigner, and in 2010 a member of the House of Lords. Her current role began in March 2013.

“Their [victims’] voices need to be heard because otherwise it does become a process, [a] statistical issue and I always said when I lost Garry he would never be a statistic,” she told Police Oracle in an interview at her office in central London.

“We’ve got to start feeling for these families, and it’s never easy but we never have a column in anything we do for emotion. If something works well how do you describe it when you can’t see it?”

“When you read in the paper the trial has finished you think life goes on, but actually that’s when your journey begins.”

One of her key campaigns has been for the rights of victims to be enshrined in law, something that all three major parties put in their manifestos before the 2015 general election, but something which is yet to come to fruition.

The law would give victims rights including to be informed of court dates, the right to legally review issues such as charges being dropped against a suspect, and to be consulted on conditions of release or discharge.

She also wants to see a network of advocates set up to provide support to victims of serious crime after their experiences, including to help with the court process, around police stations and beyond, under a model which could be based on the existing work of independent domestic abuse advisors.

“My family liaison officers were my rocks and a lot of other victims say the same,” she said. “There’s always one individual, without them you wouldn’t be able to carry on. I do think that one individual needs to be that victims’ advocate who can help and assist and guide.”

The advocates would do more than family liaison officers, and their support would last longer. FLOs, she notes, “have an exit strategy, which is kind of cold”.

“If you get fantastic liaison officers who go well beyond, it gives you that kind of strength to carry on but then when they do leave, that is lonely, because […] you are then left to go on your own.”

“It was that individual that helped us, which is why I keep saying, if we can create a victims’ advocate, they would be the enabler to empower yourself and they would understand the journey as well, instead of signposting they would help you on the journey for as long as you need.”

While the government has introduced a victims’ strategy and victims’ code, both of which have been welcomed by Lady Newlove, she feels neither goes far enough in order to fully address the issues, especially as they have little legal weight.

“It’s my challenge to government, and whether I’m in this role or not I’ll still be saying it in the House of Lords,” she said.

When asked, Baroness Newlove doesn’t rule out introducing a private members bill to try to change the law.

She also notes with alarm that it was left to victims to crowdfund to bring a judicial review in the case of the release of black cab rapist John Worboys, a situation she is confident ministers will listen to her over and prevent from happening again regardless of a victims’ law.

“It was shambolic in that victims had to crowdfund and that should never happen again,” she added.

But does the government listen to the victims’ commissioner? “I believe the government does listen, [but] it’s up to them how they take that on,” she said, adding that her small team has produced a lot of useful reviews, but noting that “the role has no powers to dictate”.

Issues in the criminal justice system run very deep though, she feels: “I wish there was a section in the law books for victims because they would understand […] they’re not just facts, they’re not just statistics, they’re somebody’s loved one.”