The Ministry of Justice is looking to deliver a Victims’ Bill, aimed at improving victim engagement and experience with the criminal justice system. Currently, too many victims feel let down by a system that seems complex, alienating and ineffective, leading them to disengage altogether. This Bill seeks to address the issues that facilitate these negative experiences, and ensure victims engaging with the criminal justice system feel safe, understood and protected.
JUSTICE has submitted a response to the Ministry of Justice’s consultation, drawing on a number of our Working Party reports including: ‘A Parole System fit for purpose’ (2022); Prosecuting Sexual Offences (2019); and ‘Tackling Racial Injustice: Children and the Youth Justice System’ (2021).
We made a number of recommendations, including:
- A duty to update victims with relevant information during the parole process:victims are currently left in the dark about their assailant’s status and progress, which can lead to feelings of anxiety and mistrust in the parole system. A duty to provide relevant information, such as licence conditions and sentence progression, would make victims feel more engaged and subsequently lead to increased trust in the system.
- The provision of a dedicated parole helpline for victims’ inquiries: the parole system is currently confusing and inaccessible for victims, their families, and those who have offended. This leave victims without clear guidance on the process, and subsequently alienates them from the CJS. Providing an information and advice helpline that is properly funded, staffed and advertised would allow victims to speak directly with officials, and would ensure they feel supported.
- The expansion and standardisation of Sexual Assault Referral Centres (“SARCs”) and Rape and Serious Sexual Offence (“RASSOs”) units: supporting victims of sexual violence requires centralised, specialised services that cater to multiple, specific needs. SARCs and RASSO units are proven to effectively meet these needs, but lack of funding has created ‘postcode lotteries’ where victims often do not have access to the standard of care they deserve. Sufficient funding is required to ensure local support services operate to a consistent and high standard across the jurisdiction.
- The use of restorative justice: in the right contexts, restorative justice can provide an opportunity for reconciliation, which can aid in the victim’s psychological rehabilitation. It has been especially effective with respect to children and young adults, as an alternative to forcing vulnerable young people through a gruelling process, that can lead to re-traumatisation of victims with lasting impacts.
- Specialist training for victim support services: across both legal and non-legal support for victims, a nuanced, specialist understanding of their experiences is at best patchy and at worst entirely lacking. Expansion of the Bar Standards’ Board’s Youth proceedings competency requirement across all legal practitioners working with children and young adults, as well as cultural competency and bias training for support and advice services such as schools, Independent Domestic Violence Advisors, Independent Sexual Violence Advisors, would increase victims’ trust of the criminal justice system as an institution that understands their multidimensional needs.
We also raised concerns regarding:
- The use of Community Impact Statements which could exacerbate existing disparities in the criminal justice system by legitimising racial, class and gender biases that often prevail unconsciously in the general public opinion.
- Open hearings in the parole process which, rather than increase victim engagement, could risk re-traumatisation, increased antagonism and frustration with the process. By forcing proximity between victims’ and their assailant, open hearings could risk undoing years of restoration for the victim, with little benefit other than performative transparency.
- The introduction of Victim Personal Statements for discharge hearings of so-called ‘mentally disordered offenders’ as counterproductive to the victim’s healing process, inappropriate in the context of mentally unwell individuals who have offended, and unnecessary given the Mental Health Tribunal’s 2011 Practical Guidance which makes provision for victims’ accounts to be part of the proceedings.
- The introduction of a ‘serious violence duty’ in clause 7(1) to (2) of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which would amount to a disproportionate invasion of victims’ right to privacy, and a subsequent erosion of trust – especially from communities with a historic mistrust of government institutions, and those who are marginalised. This ‘culture of mistrust’ would break down vital structures of care, support and safety that the proposed Victims’ Bill should seek to strengthen.