Victims and witnesses of criminal conduct play pivotal roles in our criminal justice system. Their evidence enables the State to prosecute offences, seeking to prevent future harm to others and ensuring that the guilty receive a fair penalty. All too often, however, people affected by crime are left to navigate the complex and confusing criminal justice system alone.
It is for this reason that victims of crime have long been promised a meaningful set of legal entitlements: few are aware of those that already exist, and fewer still receive adequate and timely information about police investigations as they should. Some hope was given by the draft Victims Bill which was put before the Justice Committee for pre-legislative scrutiny in 2022, but even at that stage, there was little to make victims’ rights a reality.
By the time it reached Parliament in March 2023, that original Victims Bill had become the Victims and Prisoners Bill, and the weak provisions addressing victims’ rights were diluted further through being overshadowed by significant parole reform proposals. The Bill, as it stands, does not enhance the rights of people affected by crime within the criminal justice system beyond the existing Victims’ Code; there has been no consultation on the content of the new Victims’ Code that is to be introduced by the Bill. Nor are there any real enforcement mechanisms that would assist people affected by crime to secure their rights in practice.
Similar complaints can be made concerning Part 2, which deals with victims of major incidents. Provision is made for independent advocates to be appointed to assist those victims, but the role is weak and lacks safeguards on advocates’ independence. On the other hand, it is open to doubt whether independent public advocates should be designated as interested persons at inquests, as the Bill proposes. Families of the bereaved should be legally represented in this context, and it is not appropriate for an advocate – who is expressly prohibited from providing legal services – to either stand in that place or duplicate that role.
Victims of major incidents should, however, be entitled to the same procedural rights as people affected by crime. The criminal justice and inquiry/inquest processes often go hand-in-hand: there is no reason why victims should be able to access information and support services, and challenge decisions affecting them in one setting but not in the other. The Bill in its present form is a missed opportunity to equalise this position.
Most troubling, however, is Part 3 of the Bill, which introduces significant changes to the parole process. First, the Bill seeks to tighten the test so that it is more difficult for prisoners to be released on parole. Parole decision-making focusses on the risk of future harm, and yet no evidence has been provided to show that public protection requires this change. In fact, the evidence seems to suggest the opposite, given the Parole Board’s own statistics – accepted by the Government, demonstrate that less than 0.5% of prisoners released by the Parole Board are convicted of a serious further offence within three years of the release decision having been made.
The second major change relates specifically to a category of prisoners to be designated as the ‘top-tier’, namely those who have committed the offences of murder, rape, serious terrorism or terrorism-connected offences, and caused or allowed the death of a child. First, the Bill proposes to allow the Parole Board to decline to determine release in a particular case and instead refer it to the Secretary of State. This possibility would bring the Board’s very status as a court into question. Second, the Secretary of State would obtain a veto over release decisions for this group of provisions, empowering them to override any release decision made by the Parole Board, thereby quashing the original decision so that the Secretary is free to re-take it. These are extraordinary provisions which challenge the separation of powers and accordingly the rule of law.
The Bill further seeks to disapply section 3 of the Human Rights Act 1998 from all existing and future legislative provisions dealing with the release, licence supervision, and recall of prisoners. Like the Bill of Rights Bill before it, this provision is unacceptable and would deny a particular group their fundamental human rights protections.
In brief, the Bill fails to deliver on key promises and poses significant challenges to human rights and the rule of law. For these reasons, JUSTICE considers that Parts 1 and 2 of the Bill should be substantially revised, and Part 3 should be removed entirely.
House of Commons Second Reading (May 2023)
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