Putting Victims at the Heart of the Justice System

I hold many memories from the day I was elected to parliament, but I often reflect on a conversation I had in the midst of polling day. I met a woman who had endured the horrific pain of losing her sister – who had been murdered. I remember listening to her describe the devastating impact it had on her family. That conversation had a profound effect on me.

Now as the Shadow Justice Minister I know that during every stage of the criminal justice process, from the crime being committed to the offender being released, there is a victim who must be considered. The effects can be long lasting, physical and emotional and I am clear that our criminal justice system must revolve around the victim and place at its heart the needs and recovery of those who have suffered.

To our shame, research shows that 42% of victims feel they are treated unfairly by the criminal justice system. Many believe that the system itself often compounds the misery brought about by the original crime. Whether it is the woman who only finds out that her attacker has been released from prison by seeing him in the supermarket, or the 13 year-old victim of sexual abuse labelled a ‘sexual predator’ by a judge, our justice system is failing too many victims.

Recently, the government published a Code of Practice for victims of crime. The main element of this is centred around victim impact statements, which were originally introduced by Labour to convey the pain and anguish felt by the victim in the courtroom. They do make a difference – but only when they are actually taken and read in the courtroom. There is no obligation to do this. And, by introducing a code rather than a law as Labour propose, the government is demonstrating just how out of touch they are with the needs of victims.

Personally, I would go much further and introduce a victims’ law, ensuring that victim impact statements are enforceable with someone there to oversee the process. I would also include measures such as a right to be kept informed by the police and prosecution services as a prosecution proceeds, and a right to be informed in advance if a perpetrator is to be released from custody.

I think we should also introduce a right to be treated decently in the court room with an explanation of court proceedings in advance of cases – pretty basic stuff in the 21st century. Plus, training for judges and magistrates – so they understand the needs of victims and witnesses in the court room, particularly in the heat of cross-examination and giving evidence.

None of this is rocket science. Many people probably think these rights already exist.

I'm still in contact with the woman I met on polling day – and she is doing fine, but her life has been scarred by the crime that was perpetrated on her family. We owe it to her, and to all the victims of crime and their families, to do better and ensure that victims and witnesses are absolutely central to the criminal justice system.

This article was first published in the Barnsley Independent on 22 January 2014.